Dara A. Baker, CA, Head Archivist, Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College 2016-01-21 14:59:35
What effect has technology had on providing reference service to archives users? This question was wrestled with by a panel of information professionals at the SAA Annual Meeting in Cleveland last August: Jan Blodgett (Davidson College), Russell Gasero (Reformed Church in America), Abigail Nye (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Dennis Roman Riley (Brooklyn Navy Yard), and me. Although we represent varied approaches to reference in the digital age, we all agree about the primary role of archivists—to provide access to the resources in our collections. Reference Scenarios We wanted to open a discussion about the ways in which digital tools such as Google Search engines, Instagram, Twitter, and tagging have changed the reference side of the profession and about archival reference best practices based on our collective diverse experiences. To encourage participation, the panel contacted SAA roundtables and sections to ask SAA members to provide questions and scenarios on reference issues. We received a dozen responses and the panelists added a half dozen of our own that fell roughly into three categories: (1) standards and access, (2) cutting-edge reference to make archival collections and archival staff more accessible to users, and (3) the effect that remote reference and digitization has on brick-and-mortar archives. From these, we added another overarching issue: how to define meaningful metrics for reference requests and whether remote use of material without an archivist as mediator should be considered a part of reference statistics. Then we created the following hypothetical scenarios, to which the panelists responded. Scenario 1: A researcher asks how to access material in your archives when your institution does not have EAD finding aids. The scenario derived from a question asked by an SAA member, “Are you, as a savvy reference archivist, okay with the fact that not all repositories make their finding aids available in EAD format via some interoperable interface? Can you still find information in other repositories despite the fact that they don’t follow standards?” All of the panelists agreed that yes, you can still be a good repository without EAD finding aids. Nye highlighted the key element: While standardization and interoperability can promote access and discovery, all archivists need “to figure out how to provide the best access for our users, in our context, and that doesn’t necessarily mean mandatory EAD finding aids.” In fact, as Blodgett and Riley responded, there is benefit in teaching students and researchers multiple ways in which to access archival collections, with EAD as one tool. In terms of access, here is a place where technology can assist an institution without relying on EAD; OAI-PMH harvesting provides similar benefits by pulling results from good metadata into Google search results. Critically, the panelists all agreed, though we understood that it might be controversial, EAD should be considered unproven for born-digital records. We concluded that following EAD and other standards has clear benefits for most institutions, particularly in a world still dominated by content aggregators (WorldCat, ArchivesGrid), but archives should ensure that EAD finding aids provide a measureable return on investment (increased access, reach, awareness, speed) that outweighs input costs (staff time, effort, tech support, training). Scenario 2: A supervisor has just told you that you will be taking a turn on a two-hour live chat, which was already announced to the staff and the public. We developed this question from a variety of responses and our own experiences with cutting-edge technologies, including reference by Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. While none of us had participated in a live chat, all the panelists were willing to experiment with the medium—with limits and recommendations. The panel made key points: 1) archival reference is not fast food, and 2) archivists should welcome experimentation, within reason. Archival reference, unlike much library reference, cannot be answered quickly. While an archives’ staff can create an FAQ, which the panel recommends, we acknowledge that researchers, even if asking what seems to be the same question, are often seeking different information. Gasero emphasized that most archival reference requires the archivist to consult a wide variety of sources that often precludes answers formulated in the succinct format needed for a live chat or Twitter exchange and the more complex the question, often the more complex the answer. When embracing new technologies, live chat and social media can be fantastic tools if you have the staff, knowledge, and support to use them as intended—for quick, rapid response. Scenario 3: A request comes in asking about items that are available only in house. What do you do for a researcher who is located locally versus one who is long distance or even overseas? In trying to answer this question, we did, of course, have to include the ubiquitous “it depends” as an answer. However, none of the panelists was comfortable leaving it there. Most importantly, we believe that digitizing everything is not the answer, at least not yet, and particularly since digital preservation remains in its beta stage. We, as archivists, need to educate our researchers on the time, effort, and expense that goes into any digitization project to balance their expectations of availability and access with our staff, technology, and budgetary constraints. Some Recommendations One of the key recommendations that I wanted to emphasize regards resource allocation: telling a researcher how much time a request will take—whether it’s thirty minutes or four hours or two days—is a critical skill to develop and pass on to new hires. An honest statement about what kind of turnaround a researcher can expect makes a big difference for workflow. In the end, simplifying the archival staff member’s work while providing the best service possible through shared reference files and good continuity of operations is key. The open discussion about reference statistics and metrics pulled a number of the points in the discussion forward, particularly how to deal with declining visits to the institution and an increasing expectation by users that reference access be available 24/7 rather than during regular business hours. In many ways, who we help and how well we help them often has an effect on our bottom line. Adjusting metrics to the new realities of archives, our digital presence, the separation from researchers, and increasing demands of resource allocators to take business measures such as ROI and year-over-year improvements into account should be actively embraced by our profession. Archivists are not alone in grappling with these questions. Reference should be front and center in any discussion about how we as archivists do our work and respond to the challenges of constantly changing technology. Reference is the front line for technological change as researchers find us in new ways, forcing us to embrace technologies that are seldom tested by the archival profession before we have to adopt them. It is up to us to adapt, reject, or reshape these technologies to meet our needs. By being proactive rather than reactive to new technologies, we can maintain archival reference’s unique characteristics: the importance of the reference interview, the reminder that archival reference is seldom successful when done FAQ style, and that subject knowledge and institutional knowledge must be preserved for the benefit of staff and researchers.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.