Looking Forward in Archival Reference
August 3, 2012 § Leave a Comment
This summer, I’m working full time (in records management! at a pharmaceutical company! but that’s another story) and have just finished taking two classes. Needless to say, the past two months have been a whirlwind and I am looking forward to getting some sleep and cleaning my apartment. Archival Access and Use, which I completed online, made me realize how strange archives must be for people who haven’t spent the last six years in them. I don’t remember what I felt like when I first started working at my college archives, but I learned gradually; it must be very different for a researcher coming in with an informational need. I’ve been thinking about the standards and traditions surrounding this profession and have a feeling we ’re not doing a good enough job providing archival reference services.
As a profession, I think we get hung up on the stuff we archive rather than our users, and we need to remember that we provide a service. From a profession serving the esoteric interests of highly-qualified scholars in centuries past, we have become integral parts of communities, providing access to materials and taking on the responsibility of documenting multiple voices. Moving forward, I think our biggest challenge will be defining ourselves in relation to our users.
We also need to find a way to prove our worth to our communities (and funders!) without losing sight of our missions. Focusing on backlog reduction, “MPLP,” and linear feet processed in a year focuses too much on “the stuff” and not the users. What we as archivists provide to our communities is unquantifiable, but we have to be a bit more savvy in demonstrating what it is we do and what social or intellectual capital we generate to our stakeholders and funders. That will require a little bit more business-like thinking; furthermore, we will have to better understand ourselves and our missions and visions in order to communicate that identity. We need to bridge the gap between archivists and users, and access is a big part of that. People generally understand how libraries work, but we could never say the same about archives.
In thinking about (or rethinking) what we have to offer and the means we have to offer it, the archives profession will have to consider which of its historical traditions—regarding access, arrangement, description, preservation, privacy—are worth keeping and which are holding us back. Of course, I’m not suggesting we let users browse closed stacks, but I believe we ought to think about what tools we have available to us—data visualization, bibliometrics, etc.—that we can use to make the information-seeking environment in an archive more palatable to new and continuing users. I don’t have any answers, and hesitate to agree with anyone who thinks they do. We have to be open-minded in aligning our actions with a changing world. Twenty years ago, the pre-EAD, pre-smart-phone, pre-Web 2.0 archive was on a very different trajectory than it is now. We have adapted quite well, but need to keep evolving. We need to be strategically-thinking, strategically-acting organizations that meet our users rather than expecting them to adapt to our traditions.