Providing access to archival collections can be complex and challenging. However, a successfully implemented collections management system (CMS) can make discovery easier.
As research expectations increase, archival repositories need to alter traditional practices to meet user needs. With a CMS implementation, archivists should look for ways to maximize the value of their collections to patrons.
Archival collections management systems can offer powerful analytical tools to help archivists determine what collections would be of greatest interest to their users. Which collections are the most used? Could they be better described or reach wider audiences? Consider using the processing principles explored in Daniel A. Santamaria’s Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs (Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2015). Extensible processing emphasizes decision-making and the prioritization of collections. Santamaria suggests creating baseline access to all collections by standardizing description, aggregating the management of collections, reducing handling and processing, and viewing processing holistically. Most importantly, he emphasizes the development of iterative processing for parts of collections that have the potential for the most research value.
After creating baseline access to your collections, you analyze what users search for in the collections through data collected via your CMS. Archivists may be surprised to see views of other collections overshadowing what they believe is their most popular collection. Discoveries like this may lead the team to re-evaluate processing priorities, describe materials more thoroughly, or plan an exhibit highlighting the most accessed collection areas.
Collections benefit from the more user-responsive description levels that a CMS can enable. Popular collections, for example, might be inventoried at a more granular level. If users access collections frequently, archivists could create folder-level descriptions and publish the updated inventories for researchers.
Archivists should find ways to wrap layers of interpretation around items or collections to allow users to grasp their significance. For example, archivists may wish to apply museum-like description and arrangement to their online collections. They could create a highlights tour of a collection, defined by the audience or classifications, such as period or geography. Images predominate in the presentation of highlights tours, shown one at a time, or in a slideshow or light box layout. Thumbnails may be clickable through to a full-size image and collection information. The amount and style of the text can vary from the selection of data fields or longer narratives. Archivists should look to curators and educators to create online collections that provide more context for users. Rich captions or audio narration can provide secondary sources for archival material. Once users understand how the items were created, they can view the primary sources to analyze and interpret their findings.
Archivists recognize that contextual information about their collections is as important as the objects themselves. Archives have always communicated such information through exhibitions, publications, lectures, tours, and programs. The Internet offers archives an opportunity to present more of their collections and context to a larger, more geographically dispersed audience than ever before. Archives can provide images and information about their collections online—but works retrieved from collection databases provide limited information to users. The web presentation of CMS data should empower uses to follow their interests and pursue the stories that most interest them. In addition, collections should capitalize on multimedia, not just text, for more in-depth discovery.
Neutral No More
While the archival profession has often provided objective descriptions to their holdings, the capabilities of collections management systems, as well as the expectations of online researchers, have created an opportunity for richer, more nuanced engagement. Providing access to collections—through traditional finding aids and more interactive, exploratory, and user-centered description and arrangement—can reach users who may never physically enter an archival repository but may wish to learn more about the historical records that interest them.
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