Bringing Archival Reference into the 21st Century: Meeting the Needs of a New Generation of Patrons

In honor of passing my comps four years ago I give you, my comps paper.      


October 16, 2012


Popular culture helped to create and broadcast the stereotype of the Dusty Archivist for many years (Cox, 2006). When the word archivist is mentioned most imagine a spectacled old lady with her greyed hair in a bun to come and assist in riffling through musty mothball eaten boxes in a dimly lit basement room. However Archivists are breaking free of these stereotypes by bringing the archives into the 21st century. They are discovering new and inventive ways to meet the needs of the Digital Generation.

        The reference archivist has the rousing task of identifying the patron’s reference needs while incorporating or adapting existing technologies to help meet and ideally exceed the user’s needs. These tasks include creating new ways of accessing materials, maintaining preservation standards, and searching for novel ways to market the archive to a wider audience. These tasks become more challenging as patrons increasingly expect the archive to be available in complete digital format and available online.

Students who are just now entering college have never known a world without the internet, have always had a way to download music for free online, and have no memory of a time when Facebook and Myspace didn’t exist (Beloit College, 2012). They have the mentality that if it doesn’t exist online then it just doesn’t exist. Patrons are demanding interactive and searchable content they can access at any time of the day from any location they choose and they want to be able to collect and manage all of this information in a clean, meaningful, and intelligible format. Creating such a space while maintaining provenance and privacy is well within the scope and abilities of current reference archivists.

The issue of access is not a new one, reference archivists have always tried to seek out methods that would allow archival patrons substantial freedom and greater accuracy in finding and retrieving materials. Card catalogs, finding aids, prepared guides, indexes, and inventories are all tools that have been developed to assist patrons in finding what they are looking for (Chalon, 1982, p. 260). But the drawback to these aids, paper or digital, is that they are generally nothing more than static lists. They are not searchable or interactive, and in some cases patrons have reported that they are not very useful in finding specific materials either but “that such records can only communicate that relevant materials exists, not its quantity or quality” (Cohen, 1997, p. 15).

        The most prevalent complaint observed from reference archivists in the literature was their opposition to having to use outdated finding aids (Perry, 2011, p.320; McCausland, 2011, p. 314). Many of the finding aids were compiled years prior and due to various reasons have since been labeled inadequate. However, the finding aids are either begrudgingly used or abandoned altogether but still they manage to remain as the most effective tool for accessing records for serious research.

It was previously thought that patrons were satisfied with the discovery of one worthy source among stacks of discarded manuscripts no matter how time consuming the search may have been. Yet recent literature suggests otherwise stating that, “archives are underutilized by scholars because of the time consuming nature of the research” (Beattie, 1997, p. 86). This implies that if finding aids and guides were more accessible and logically organized then the archives would garner more researchers as well as equip reference archivists with better tools they could use to answer reference inquiries.

        There is no simple answer that would solve the access conundrum, but if patrons are demanding online access, search capabilities, and functionality then as Librarians we should give it to them. The reference archivist’s first step in increasing access and satisfying patron needs should be to consider creating a dedicated website or webpage for the archive. As Pugh (2005) noted, “[t]he archival system is no longer predicated on interaction between the user and archivist. Researchers can directly access finding aids and increasingly locate documents online” (p. 3).

Many patrons have converted to researching primarily online and are becoming more comfortable interacting with search engines and webpages than they are with people. Being able to compare and contrast globally available resources while sitting at the computer has become commonplace. “Computing is not about computing anymore it is about living… [computers have moved] into our laps and pockets” (Ruller, 1997, p. 196) so instead of fighting the inevitable change and lamenting that patrons no longer have the patience or research skills to come to the archive for materials, reference archivists should embrace new technologies and find ways to make it work for them. In fact, Pugh (2005) references that it is more important now than ever to seek out and try to understand the archive’s primary users and begin to acknowledge and adapt to their information needs as well as observe their research habits, because archivists should prepare to evolve in order to retain the attention and interests of a new breed of patron (p. 4). Conversely, Laura Cohen (1997) advises against trying to predict what future patrons will want or need, saying that “trying to do so and creating services geared to them takes time and resources away from other functions” (p. 12).

        Websites and social media are tools most patrons are familiar with using in their personal or professional life. Incorporating both into the archive has the aforementioned potential to better meet the diverse needs of current patrons while simultaneously acquiring new users. Content management systems such as Joomla! and Drupal are popular choices for libraries looking to create a website for several reasons: they are open source, allow for a great deal of customization, and are as easy to understand and operate as Microsoft Word. These platforms allow the reference archivist to create a website where they can import finding aids, use diverse metadata, as well as host a discussion forum or blog. The forum would give patrons a place in which they could interact with the reference archivist as well as other patrons. They would be able to ask and answer questions in addition to looking up frequently asked information, and it has the potential to decrease the time reference archivists spend on ready reference queries thereby leaving more time to spend on the more time intensive research questions.

For instance the San Francisco Public History Center in conjunction with the San Francisco Public Library Book Arts and Special Collections Department created a blog where they write and post images taken from items in their collection. Images include historical driver’s licenses, pages from rare books, vintage postcards, and a number of other artifacts they collect which would interest their audience. In their blog post titled, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Tuer,” the author details a book that was published in 1884 by Andrew W. Tuer which is held in their collection (Special Collections Librarian, 2009). The content of the blog post is eye catching and engaging as it incorporates some of the humor and images from the book being discussed, however the real interest is in the comments section. The second comment was posted by Andrew M. Tuer who wrote, “My name is also Andrew Tuer, I wonder if I am related to him.” (Tuer, 2010). The Special Collections Librarian replied to this comment and offered several resources that the commenter could use to start his genealogical search including biographical information, obituaries, and books on conducting personal genealogical research. The Librarian also wrote that the “San Francisco Public Library owns these and many other books to help you with genealogical research. Ask your librarian for help” (Special Collections Librarian, 2010). This example demonstrates how creating an open forum in which patrons can search and discover material at their leisure could lead to additional patrons even if they are “hobbyists”.

While blogs and discussion forums are appropriate for patrons looking to network or who have questions in the ready reference purview, a website provides the reference archivist with a trusted and professional presence on the web. A website can incorporate the positive aspects of finding aids with the simplicity of keyword searching and the benefits of hyperlinking content to supplementary information (Piché, 1998, p.108). Simplifying access to information across institutions can help create invaluable networks for not only the patron but for the reference archivist as well.  

With the increasing simplification of accessing archival content, privacy and security become concerns. Most institutions have at least one collection that has restrictions placed on it which limits access to patrons. Collections that carry restrictions should still have a presence on the website although in order to uphold the privacy request of the donor the reference archivist should notate in the collection’s description that there are restrictions in addition to notating how an interested patron can request access for research. For example, the collection description for the University of Central Florida’s Harrison “Buzz” Price Papers contains the statement that “[s]ome materials are restricted per the donor’s wishes but researchers may petition the donor’s family for access” (Harrison “Buzz” Price papers, 2011, para. 1). It would certainly behoove the reference archivists to incorporate any and all collection restrictions on the collection’s webpage in order to alleviate potential confusion or acrimonious feelings between the reference archivists and the patrons. Another annotation that would benefit the patron and archivist alike would be to include the collection’s processing progress which would inform the patron that there are sections of the collection that are unprocessed or are currently unavailable.

By creating a website for an archive that incorporates collection metadata, key words, hyperlinks, and crucial information regarding the collection, the reference archivist is meeting and very possibly exceeding the patron’s needs.  Although the creation and implementation of a new website is initially time consuming, the maintenance and subsequent collection additions should be quicker and more content rich. By providing access to a majority of the collections in a digital format, the time required to look up a reference question should decrease thus allowing more time to explore more pressing or intensive reference questions.

Another feature that the reference archivists could implement on their website is a secure login feature. When using content management systems like Joomla! and Drupal enabling a secure login feature on the website is straight forward and easy enough that it can be done with little to no experience. Creating a secure login is as simple as installing free Joomla! plugins or choosing the correct Drupal settings, and if in doubt both products offer free access to assistance through downloadable content, wiki pages, and forums (Drupal, 2004; Joomla!, 2012). Enabling this security feature would allow patrons to choose if they would like to register with the website. Opting to be a registered user would give the patron a profile page where they would be able to do such things as creating a personal reference collection through bookmarks, participate in private forums, receive the Archives’ newsletter, vote on themes for upcoming exhibits, or any number of things: the options are practically limitless. An interactive website like what is detailed above would potentially attract a greater number of users as well as creating a solid foundation for present and future reference archivists to build upon and strengthen as patron needs continue to change.

A prime example of how a website and a discussion forum can come together to create a unique and rewarding user experience is the Polar Bear Expedition website  from the archives at the University of Michigan (Yakel, Shaw, & Reynolds, 2007, p. 1). The archival group at this institution was aiming to “move beyond simply searching and browsing online finding aids and experiment with shared authority and collaboration” (Yakel, Shaw, & Reynolds, 2007, p. 2). And they did by creating a digital space where patrons would be able to readily access materials from one of the institutions most popular collections. They also created findings aids are have the option to annotate digitally on which helps maintain a visual cue on what information others found important (Yakel, Shaw, & Reynolds, 2007, p. 5). The group collaborated on a discussion forum as well where patrons and librarians could interact with each other at their leisure in addition to allowing the patrons to freely discuss the collection in a moderated atmosphere in hopes that it would “encourage…more user-to-user interaction in the future” (Yakel, Shaw, & Reynolds, 2007, p. 6).

She found that most patrons enjoyed registering for an account on the website and maintaining a ‘private’ collection bookmarked pages and digital materials. She was able to transfer the finding aids that were created by one of her predecessors to the website while still maintaining the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) data. She and her team then moved on to updating the new digital finding aids, creating better metadata tags, and organizing the website contents to best maintain the original provenance. Although this project was time and labor intensive, it was appreciated by the patrons who were now able to remotely access a good portion of the collection. The reference archivist still receives questions pertaining to the collection but they are generally the more difficult questions that patrons are not able to uncover using the website alone. The Polar Bear Expedition website set a commendable precedent for reference archivists. The archivist observed an area that could be improved upon to better meet her patron’s needs and she created a solution that satisfied her users and in return made the collection more successful and accessible.

Creating a remotely accessible digital collection for patrons will not make reference archivists obsolete. On the contrary, the reference archivist will have the same role they have always had but will be better equipped to answer the challenging reference queries in a timely fashion. The archivist, if asked a simple or ready reference style question, will be able to steer the patron to a forum or webpage where their question was answered previously elaborating further if needed.

As briefly mentioned above, patrons tend to ask the same or similar reference questions year after year, and instead of creating more prepared guides (Chalon, 1982, p.260) as has been done previously the reference archivist could instead implement a frequently asked questions or FAQ page on the website. This way when the patron searches the website for a simple question their query will return appropriate results thus answering their question.

There is at least one service that digital media have yet to conquer, the personal reference interview which is considered by McCausland the “cornerstone of archival reference work” (2011, p. 312). Archival Reference and Library Reference interviews differ in that typically “archival reference questions can be time intensive” (Perry, 2011, p. 319). A large backlog in the archive department has become a common vexation for many institutions. Effectuated by time intensive reference questions, budget cuts, and inadequate staffing, some archive directors are allocating reference archivists a mere 60 minutes to research and answer each remote reference question (Duff & Fox, 2006, p. 145). This imposed “solution” to the backlog issue does not help the reference archivist fulfill the patron’s needs; rather it creates and fosters feelings of animosity towards the reference archivists and the archives as a whole.

To create further contention, when patrons submit requests to use collections for research they have certain expectations of what the experience will be like. Some expect to receive the answers to ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how’ were the records created and arranged. Some expect the archivist to be an expert in every topic at hand, and are therefore sorely disappointed when they learn that reference archivists are not but they should be utilized nonetheless. For instance, if the patron is in need of a fresh perspective on the subject, or when attempting to consult finding aids and collection guides. For patrons these misunderstandings can directly affect not only their attitude towards archives but it can also have a negative effect on their research. Reference archivists should make it known at the outset that although they are not experts on the content of the collection that they are in fact career researchers who can assist them with figuring out not only which questions should be asked but how to ask them.

        To alleviate some stress, archivists such as Chalon (1982) suggest taking the time to conduct a thorough reference interview (p. 259) which will not only save time in the long run, but helps to prevent frustration if records are offered that do not meet the researchers needs. To decipher what the patron is looking for the reference archivist must ask leading questions to determine the scope and/or depth of a given topic in addition to giving suggestions where warranted (Chalon, 1982, p. 259). In order to best meet the patron’s needs the reference archivist should be comfortable with methods used to obtain information as well as have a good working knowledge of the collections that are housed in their institution as their patrons generally, and erroneously, assume the reference archivist is an expert in the content of the collections (Chalon, 1982, p. 260; Duff & Fox, 2006, p.143). However would be a fair assumption that the reference archivist is capable of assisting the patron in locating materials within the collection that are relevant to their query.

        As stated earlier, there were patrons who felt that their reference queries ranked as less important overall than the preservation of the archival records to reference archivists. Even though preservation of materials is the archivist’s initial concern it “means only that they must come before, not that they are more important than [emphasis added], the secondary duties to make them available” (Eastwood, 1997, p. 29; Trace & Ovalle, 2011, p. 77). Essentially, access and reference services are equally important as preserving collected material as one cannot exist without the other. Even though the documentation and preservation of past events is essential to the archivist’s primary role, Pugh (2005) reminds us that “[a]rchives that see their main task in preserving the past for the future become invisible in the present, when support for creating an own memory is needed” (p. 105). However problems may arise when patrons need to access materials which are exceedingly fragile or valuable. Generally a digital copy of the material will satisfy the patron, however there are some cases where only the use of the original material will suffice. Frequent use of fragile materials is detrimental to the integrity of the item; in this case it may be digitized and safely stored for future reference or labeled as limited use. In cases of limited use the reference archivist with the help of the archivist must determine if the original material is in fact needed for research or if the patron is just curious to see an old artifact.

        Reference archivists have quite a road ahead of them. Technology is already working on greatly changing the archive. We digitize content to make available in mass quantities, we code key terms into our data so that future archivists can access the content, and we are more social than we have ever been before. The future will reveal what tools we hang on to and which ones we abandoned. It will be exciting and interesting to incorporate tools such as social media, selling archival themed mementoes, and teaching courses from within the archive.



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Yakel, E., Shaw, S., & Reynods, P. (2007). Creating the next generation of archival finding aids. D-Lib Magazine, 13(5/6)1-8.


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