SAA 2015: Session 106, Yes, I Google Better: How Technology Has Changed Archival Reference

In advance of the 2015 Annual Meeting, we invited SNAP members to contribute summaries of panels, roundtable and section meetings, forums, and pop-up sessions. Summaries represent the opinions of their individual authors; they are not necessarily endorsed by SNAP, members of the SNAP Steering Committee, or SAA.

As Dara Baker, Archivist for the Naval Historical Collection at the Naval War College Library and moderator for Session 106, said at the beginning of the panel discussion, this topic cannot offer a one-size-fits-all solution for how to incorporate new technologies into archival reference, but it offered a look at what several different institutions of varying scope and size do to best use the technology they have access to in order to best serve their patrons. There were three scenarios posed to the panel, each dealing with a current topic that allowed the archivists to reflect how they had responded or would respond.

In the first scenario, the archivists were asked if they were disappointed when other institutions didn’t use EAD finding aids. Of the panelists, only Abbi Nye, a Reference and Instruction Archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, worked in an institution where the majority of the collection had EAD finding aids, and that was 60% of the collection. Jan Blodgett, the College Archivist at Davidson College, and Baker had some EAD finding aids in their collections; Dennis Riley, the Assistant Director of Archives & Records Management at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Archive, was slowly working on creating them in his collection; and Russ Gasero, the Archivist for the Reformed Church in America Archives, had none in his collection.

The panelists agreed that EAD finding aids were great, but they were not the only way to access information located in their institutions or other repositories. Good metadata, good institutional knowledge, and multiple access points for users more than made up for not having EAD finding aids. Riley pointed out that good archival reference meant discerning three to five methods for obtaining the data for a patron. All the panelists agreed that patrons didn’t care about finding aids as long as they got to the information they wanted. Baker said she looks at having finding aids as a return on investment. The things gained by creating and having the aid (better interoperability, faster access, wider discovery, etc.) must be weighed against the things lost (staff time, technical support, and training). Further, she has found many patrons are confused or frustrated with online finding aids because they don’t understand why the entire collection isn’t also online.

The second scenario asked the archivists whether or not real-time chat reference and social media were good methods for archival reference. None of the archivists on the panel used chat reference, though several seemed to have answered questions via Twitter. Blodgett, in particular, emphasized that her repository had participated in the previous #AskanArchivist Day as an outreach tool. Baker said that her institution was experimenting with chat reference in the libraries and she could foresee having the archivists expected to participate.

Some of the archivists seemed more positive about the possibility of using chat reference than others. Nye particularly thought that many of the questions she received by email could also be answered by chat, especially since links and attachments could be included, so she was willing to try it. Working at a college, she pointed out that many students don’t use phones or emails; they even text their families. Patrons expected the library and the archive to meet them where they are, and these days, that space for college-age users is chat and Twitter. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Gasero’s patrons were largely his employers, who expected him to compile the research reports for them. He does have some outside patrons, but they didn’t seem to care about chat reference. They were happy to call or email. He did see the usefulness of chat and Twitter for outreach, but that didn’t fit his situation. Riley was concerned that using chat reference may further erode the respect of colleagues, many of whom he felt did not view reference as a skill on the same level as appraisal and description. All of the archivists agreed that there must be a limit to what kinds of questions would be acceptable for chat reference, as it would be impossible to handle complicated questions that way.

The third and final scenario had the archivists discuss their digitization plans in their repositories. Did the archivists do on-demand digitization, and how did they respond to remote patrons? Riley and Gasero digitized on-demand for patrons. In Riley’s case, his repository could not accept in-person patrons, so he depended on on-demand digitization to respond to many reference requests. Before his current job, he had experimented with on-demand digitization for incarcerated patrons. Gasero had many rolls of microfilm, but no microfilm reader at his repository. He did, however, have a vendor that would scan the film at reasonable rates. He has asked outside patrons for money to recoup the costs of digitizing what they need, not for a profit, and he has received a very positive response. It’s cheaper to do that than it is for many people to visit the repository from afar.

Baker’s institution prioritized collections for ditigization by the amount of use they have, regardless of how big or small the collection is. Nye’s repository had some collections fully online, but most had just a sample online. They would digitize a limited number of items for remote patrons, but after that, the patrons must come in-person to see the collection. Blodgett’s institution had not done much digitization, but they had created databases of information that indicates what is available.

Overall, the archivists agreed that technology has changed how they serve patrons, and that it will continue to change in the future. The most important thing they as reference archivists could do was pass on institutional knowledge to new and younger hires to ensure they can do their jobs well into the future, because that was the most important keystone in providing good reference services to patrons.

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