Throughout the history of the profession, archivists have provided access to the wealth of information they steward. Archivists are responsible for promoting the use of records; this is a fundamental purpose of the keeping of archives.
The decisions archivists make about what evidence is saved and what is discarded shape cultural memory. The nature of the historical record is formed not only by the actions of archivists but also by the public’s ability to access this information.
Access has changed considerably in the last few decades, as technology and the Internet provide archivists with the opportunity and the means to reach an international audience, rather than just their local community. In many ways, access is easier in the new information environment. Important or well-used materials can be digitized and made available on the web, preserving and securing the originals. A website, with clear policies and frequently asked questions, can reduce routine reference interactions, so archivists can concentrate on unique research queries.
Society has changed so that records are less hierarchical, more decentralized, and abundant, making their relationships and importance harder to distinguish. Access has also become more democratic, as the profession stresses open, equitable access to all users without discrimination or preferential treatment. In the past, only serious researchers and scholars were allowed access. Now, genealogists, students, and the intellectually curious are welcome. Outreach efforts and professional recruitment activities have reached new and underserved communities. Access is no longer a privilege but a right.
Archivists only place restrictions on access for the protection of information privacy or confidentiality, concerns that have become heightened by personal privacy laws, national security, and a more litigious society. Deeds of gift have also changed so that donors and family members no longer have so much control over access.
Technology has also affected societal expectations. Whereas reference used to involve letters or phone calls over time, many researchers expect instant replies; digitized, fully searchable records, and the ability to search across all archival holdings as if they are using Google. To remain relevant, archivists should attempt to satisfy the expectations of “Internet time,” yet still provide the quality service they are known for.
What archivists offer, that Google cannot, is the reference interaction. Reference interviews, both entering and exiting the repository, are complex, multilayered interactions with intellectual and administrative elements.
Although archives foster user-centered environments, the personal aspect of reference will always be present. Like librarians, archivists mediate between users and source material. However, reference is more vital in archives because archivists have knowledge about the unique nature of materials and of their holding repositories.
People skills are needed to navigate collections and to successfully fulfill complex research questions. Both naïve and experienced researchers have a plethora of needs to be fielded in-person, on the phone, and through email and mail. Unrealistic expectations, such as instant service or unlimited help, need to be treated courteously and professionally.
Entrance interviews orientate researchers on the use of the materials, help them identify relevant holdings, and ensure that research needs are met. Using question negotiation, with its progression of query abstraction, resolution, and refinement, the archivist provides quality reference services within the realities of the archival environment.
Exit interviews are just as important, but they may not occur because researchers may not announce their departures. The exit interview evaluates the success of the visit and the effectiveness of the reference service offered. Additionally, researchers, who may be subject experts, can give feedback about the collection, flag important documents, or raise concerns about misfiling.
Overall, successful archival service—and access—begins and ends with reference interviews, which utilize the full usefulness of the archives while meeting the administrative requirements of the repository. Archivists will continue to build collections; manage their organization, use, and preservation; and, most importantly, provide access.
Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s whitepaper, Digital Sustainability: the Archivist’s Path Forward.
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