Interview with the Author: Cheryl Oestreicher on Reference and Access for Archives

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

August 01, 2023

Cheryl Oestreicher wrote Reference and Access for Archives and Manuscripts from SAA Publishing. My interview with her is below.

1. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I am the Head of Special Collections and Archives and Professor at Boise State University. I have been working in archives and libraries for over 20 years, with the bulk of my experience in academic archives. My previous employment includes the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, University of Chicago, Drew University, and Princeton University. I have been involved in the Society of American Archivists and Academy of Certified Archivists, and am currently a member of SAA’s Dictionary Working Group and serve as ACA’s Regent for Exam Development. 

2. Briefly summarize Reference and Access for Archives and Manuscripts.

Reference and Access for Archives and Manuscripts is a manual and reference book for new and seasoned professionals. The core theme is that access is the goal of all archival work, and that all archival functions culminate in access. It presents theories and practices to provide a foundation that individuals and institutions can then adapt to their own situations and institutions. The goal was to have a manual that is thorough yet open for interpretation.

3. Why did you decide to write this book?

I was honored that then-Publications Editor Christopher Prom and AFS Series Editor Peter Wosh invited me to write the manual. I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in SAA’s publications program. 

4. What do you hope readers takeaway?

I hope readers use the manual to learn about different concepts of access and reference practices. Most of all, I hope that readers use it to think about new and creative ways to expand audiences for and access to archives.

5. The description of the book states “Readers are encouraged to examine these concepts and practices in conversation with others and to consider how archivists can continue to advance reference and access.” How do you see this taking place? What suggestions do you have for how people read this book?

I see many ways this can happen. I think that a willingness to experiment and forego traditional practices can elicit new ideas. The point is to try something new and see how it works. What helps is to continually ask “why”; if there’s a good reason, then continue, but if that question is difficult to answer, then that is indicative of an opportunity to evaluate new options. For example, at my institution we have slowly changed the registration process to use collections in person. We used to require identification, name and address, and other questions. To reduce barriers, we started by no longer asking for identification, later only taking name, email, and phone number, and eventually eliminating registration completely. This works for us and our community though may not be appropriate in all institutions. 

I would encourage readers to select one procedure they do and have a conversation with colleagues or other archivists about it. Sometimes it could be something small or other times involve truly overhauling practices, and sharing with each other what worked and what didn’t. Forums such as the RAO Section Meeting and Marketplace of IDEAS enable conversations and ways to learn from each other. Hopefully, continuing to share ideas and practices with others over time will help the profession evolve.

6. How do you see archival services changing in the future?

Technology of course will continue to be the impetus for changing reference and access in the future. For example, artificial intelligence. When I wrote the book, the concept existed but it is only recently that it has become readily accessible. What if AI, whether used by an archivist or patron, could accurately synthesize the content of thousands of scanned pages from a collection? What if archivists could use AI to create thorough research guides, detailed metadata for born-digital records, or other resources to enable access? What if AI could read documents aloud to patrons? It’s still early, but there is great potential.

I also speculate about what virtual reading rooms will look like in the future. They are still emerging in practice, but again there is great potential. Because not all digital content can be publicly accessible, this is a way to provide controlled access. One of my dreams is to combine a physical and virtual reading room. I imagine having a computer in a reading room where a remote patron could view physical files, where the patron could command the computer to turn the pages and take photographs, reducing the need to travel to archives yet provide access.

Finally, I wonder what else is on the horizon that we don’t yet know about. If we think about the past thirty years since the World Wide Web, scanning, cloud storage, email, and so much more became widely available to the public—and how that transformed archival access—who knows what we’ll see in the next thirty years!

7. Is there anything else you would like to share? 

I want to express gratitude to all the dedicated archivists who continue to demonstrate how archives are vital to society and the importance of the archival profession. I would not have been able to write the book without the archivists who wrote books and articles, were willing to share ideas and practices, and supported me throughout the process. I look forward to seeing what comes next!

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Dr. Lauren Hays is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. Take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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