A question for archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era

In a related, but different question that the one posed to researchers in the previous post, I would like the input of archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era. In the post targeted at researchers, I said:

… my hypothesis is that it is the easy and seemingly all-encompassing nature of information available on the web that has driven archivists to seek to provide online access to some level of information about all the holdings in their collections. My assumption is that prior to the Internet there was no assumption that such access would be possible, and that it was expected that there would be what we now call “hidden collections” which would have to be “discovered.”  (As opposed to today when archivists believe that our users expect that some level of intellectual access will be provided online for all materials, and that our users have an expectation that one easy search tool that reveals to them all the relevant materials across archives should be possible.)

My questions for you are:

    • Did the kind of backlogs that exist today exist in the pre-Internet era? If so, were they considered as much of a problem then as they are now (when we hear so much discussion about the need to eliminate them)? 
    • Do you agree that the primary driver in the current desire to describe all holdings at some level is the need to provide access to that information via the web? If not, what is?

Again, my thanks to you. You may think the answers to these questions are obvious, but I prefer to try to verify my assumptions. I’d rather look like an idiot by asking questions rather than by making incorrect statements. 


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12 thoughts on “A question for archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era”

  1. I have been a patron before the Internet Era, and a professional through the transition to Everything Is/Should Be On The Internet.

    Hidden collections existed then, and still exist now. The difference is that now we’re bemoaning not enough time to create a web-ready finding aid, as opposed to a typed one. Backlogs have been a documented issue in libraries for DECADES.

    “We have too much money, too many staff, and nothing to process!” said no librarian or archivist, ever.

  2. But before the Internet, were people suggesting that rather than created a “complete” typed finding aid that some kind of skeletal or preliminary description should be made and presented to the public? Was it presumed that creating a finding aid was the only accepted way to make a collection “unhidden”?

  3. My impression is that before the internet, it tended to be a case of the skeleton info *living inside the head of the archivist* until such time as the archivist had time to create a finding aid. That was my experience, anyhow.

  4. As Lynne remarks above, backlogs have been with us a long time. One issue that interests me is the difference between making finding aids available on the web, and making actual content available. Most digitization projects have focuses on selected materials and not mass digitization. I think that if we want to atrract users in the future we are going to have to digitize the bulk of our analog holdings, rather than just select items or collections that we perceive to be the most valuable. One (of the few, as far as I know, though my knowledge is not comprehensive) mass digitization project is Digibaeck, a partner ship of the Internet Archive and the Leo Baeck Institute, which specialized in the history of German-speaking Jews. They digitized over 75% of their holdings which are now available at http://www.lbi.org/digibaeck/ .

    The chief change to me overall seems that in the pre-Internet age, many archivists thought that it was a good thing that some pain, difficulty and inconvenience was necessary in order for researchers to access our collections. It was taken as a demonstration that they were “serious.” One hears much less of this now.

  5. Thanks, Alan. And digitization and making content available is a whole different kettle of fish!

    But it’s interesting you hear that in the past archivists expected, and presumably researchers expected too, that discovering and accessing original materials would involve some level of effort. So is part of the challenge archivists are facing the need to transform a process that has traditionally required some effort into one that requires as little effort as possible? Are we now assuming that researchers won’t bother to try to discover materials if the results don’t turn up in the first screen on a Google search?

  6. We are almost still in the pre-internet era………..although we did have a two page overview list of holdings, a “teaser” if you will. My sense is that he current “driver” (compulsion) in the current desire to describe all holdings at some level is more of personal competetion among younger archivists than a dedication to a job well done. The product of tons of stuff “thrown” out onto the internet is more of a jungle that a “finding aid.”
    Not all archivists believe that there should be online access to all levels of collections. Hidden collections, thank goodness, are a fact of life. What fun would it be if there were no mysteries to dig into every so often? Helping patrons is number one priority. That takes time away from processing. Actually, being able to have time to do processing should be considered a reward for taking care of patrons.

  7. Certainly in the UK archival backlogs have been with us for a long long time, but I think they were almost as much of a concern in the pre-Internet past as today. Many UK institutions published Guides to their holdings covering catalogued and uncatalogued collections to address this problem, and some made accessions lists available to users where no full catalogue existed. I published a Guide to the contents of the Gloucestershire Record Office in 1988, for example. Attitudes to making uncatalogued collections accessible for research have varied, and the pressure to expose all collections was probably felt most where it was the practice to allow such access.

  8. As both an archivist and a researcher, I agree that hidden collections are a fact of life. There are many small archives that lack the means to digitize their holdings, or even their finding aids, and that have not set digitization as a goal for the near future. In that sense, one could consider those collections hidden — at least, hidden from researchers who rely primarily on the internet. But even large, well established archives have “hidden collections.” A good archivist will save all records of historical value, even if their value to researchers isn’t clear at the time when the records are accessioned. (“Will anyone ever want to look at these?”) So, in a sense, the research value of records is only confirmed when someone asks to see them because they relate to a topic of interest. Sometimes the most obscure and unlikely pieces of information can take on great and unanticipated importance.

  9. A response from Dean DeBolt, posted in response to these questions on the Archives & Archivists listserv, repeated here with his permission:

    Did the kind of backlogs that exist today exist in the pre-Internet era? If so, were they considered as much of a problem then as they are now (when we hear so much discussion about the need to eliminate them)?

    Yes, the backlogs existed in the pre-Internet era. When I did research at a number of institutions, there was widespread knowledge of backlogs, and that there had always been backlogs. Most archives in the 1960s and 1970s were “handmaidens” of the library, especially in university settings. For librarians, while the idea of “current information” sitting in a backlog was horrifying, that was the impetus for (1) emphasis on original cataloging; (2) the development of shared cataloging so the bibliographic data needed for cataloging had already been created by someone; and (3) the idea of sharing this information (printed union catalogs). Archives were viewed as having the “old information” and everything needed original cataloging so no rush. Except the idea of sharing information about what existed copied over with the creation of NUCMC, published guides, collaboration guides (subject guides, ALA Special Libraries guide, etc.).

    Researchers were expected to come to your establishment where you had (1) expertise on the staff level; (2) access to typed/printed/handwritten guides and inventories; (3) access to other materials whose existence would only be known locally.

    Do you agree that the primary driver in the current desire to describe all holdings at some level is the need to provide access to that information via the web? If not, what is?

    I think the primary driver has been a fundamental change in the expectations of library managers coupled with the fundamental change in the expectations of users. Over the past twenty years, to me, there has been a decline in original cataloging as more publishing has moved to CIP and shared data systems. This has changed the philosophy of library managers away from the idea of the need for original cataloging to unconscious idea that we only have to copy the data from someone else. The expectation therefore has shifted from the realization of the NEED for original cataloging in archives to the idea that all we have to do to make our collections accessible is to scan them so the user can view them. I’ve run into countless administrators and librarians who have this view without any of the realization of the need for cataloging, arrangement, description, behind the archives scanning. My genealogists want to know when we will have every manuscript, county record, logbook, and diary scanned and online. Their faces fall when I point out that they will still have to read every item because the handwriting does not translate into searchable text!

    The other driver in the archives setting within a university is that one of the selling points that library administrators make about databases is their ability for any person at the university, whether located in an office, classroom, dormitory, or at an off-campus instruction center or branch campus, has access to the information via the Internet. And as enrollment becomes online, the argument is that the research information should be at the person’s fingertips. So our Florida students who are online in Juneau, Alaska, should have the same information resources as if they were in the campus library. This extends to the archives when libraries, administrators, and strategic plans begin alluding to making the library accessible online. So the fact that we have “hidden collections” (haven’t we alway?!) flies in the face of everyone-should-have-information-access point of view.

    On the part of my users, all of the students (none of whom lived in a pre-Internet age) unconsciously assume that everything is on the internet; that every fact can be found there. I’ve seen student research papers on local topics where no one came into the archives to look at the manuscript collections or original sources on the same topics. My experience with library adminstrators is that I’ve had some that say, gee the number of researchers visiting you is low, perhaps we need to cut your hours and staff…but the same people light up when you say, hey we had 300,000 hits on our internet site last year! This is a philosophical change and a frightening one.

  10. A response from Roy Webb, posted in response to these questions on the Archives & Archivists listserv, repeated here with his permission:

    Dean makes a great many good points in this and I agree wholeheartedly with them. There has always been a backlog here; I’ve been here over 30 years and there was a backlog when I got here and a bigger one will be here when I leave. I likewise agree with his assessment that the idea of “scan everything!” is a product of user demands and the google age, wherein everyone wants to see everything Right Now! I have a little saying that I’m sure my own administrators are sick of: “Before you Digitize, you have to Organize.” But it’s oh-so-true. A mass of unidentified files are still just that whether they are on RC paper or ones and zeros, and do about as much good either way. But hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask “why can’t I see all of this [thousands of pages of documents or photos] online?”

    I know I’ve told this story before but some years ago we got a microfilm copy of the records of an important court case, about 10,000 pages of testimony. So we were thinking about it and tried scanning it and using OCR, but it was just too glitch and there were too many marks and foozles and cross outs and strikeovers, and we had concluded that it wouldn’t work and we should just hire a typist to make a clean copy; when our IT department heard of it, hijacked the project so they could do OCR and Get This Straightened Out, muttering about luddites and low-tech solutions. So I lost track of it and then heard, a couple of years after that, that it had been digitized and was Available Online! I asked what happened and learned that they had spent thousands of dollars on this OCR and that, and not one of them worked at all. I asked how they got it online then, and when I found out they had hired a typist to make a clean copy and then scanned that page by page, I won’t say I smirked but there was a sense of schadenfreude.

    I’ve gone the rounds with colleagues and administrators over this many times; they respond to donor and patron complaints that they can’t see every one of our 3 million + photos and hundreds of thousands of hours of film and video online, and that comes down to us in the trenches. One in particular who always spoke of how our photos should be Seen Around The World!, to which I replied, to his horror and probably my detriment, that I actually didn’t care if someone in Waziristan or Bulgaria or Montevideo could see our photos, I cared about the students, faculty, and staff of the University of Utah; the citizens and taxpayers of Utah; the Intermountain States, and from there outwards. If someone in Waziristan learned of our photos and wanted to see them, I was glad to help them but they are not a priority.

    I love the “you’re hiding things!” calls. We got a lot of them during the last election, because we have the records of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games (you have to say it right!) and of course, Mitt Romney was in charge of those. So there were journalists all over who were just certain we were “hiding secret Olympics files” to protect him, since, hey, Utah, right? No, we had to learn to patiently explain, it’s just a huge mass of stuff and it’s actually really boring and no one had ever asked for it before, so we didn’t work on it. We’re not some secret cabal of archivists dedicated to…something. We’re just understaffed and overworked.

  11. A response from Rob Spindler, posted in response to these questions on the Archives & Archivists listserv, repeated here with his permission:

    What a fun question for a Friday morning from Kate (since I get digests…;-) Thanks to Roy and Dean for their insights, I want to come at this a little differently since I’m probably from that tweener generation:

    When I was growing up as an archivist the rage was OCLC, RLIN and WLN, which were telecommunications based bibliographic utilities designed to enable shared cataloging efficiencies and attached library circulation modules. They had really horrible text string based search command languages.

    I would like to believe us dino archivists wanted to make things widely accessible and some of us were trying to exploit b-utilities to do this. There were some very brave people out there making brief records in pre-format integration MARC-AMC records, but we had some significant constraints. There was a time when only RLIN accepted manuscript records and they were kept in a separate file. Access to the B-utilities was basically controlled by library cataloging staff, many of whom were not interested in and resistant to standards for minimal records. There was also a distrust factor in terms of their perceptions of archivists’ ability to create standards-compliant records. As a result actual data entry to these systems was often controlled by librarians, and archivists didn’t have sufficient access to make continual updates. Librarians, having a significant workload, were not anxious to perform this work for them.

    So in my mind the desire to share information about archives was always there, but the tools were inflexible and inaccessible to many archivists. I believe archivists like Pitti, Hensen, Szary, Fox, Kiesling and others saw the potential for creating archival description on the Internet at a very early stage, and worked hard to create the data content, data values and data structure standards that enabled that in the mid-1990’s. The way they did that propelled archivists into the forefront of online description and access at that time, using SGML based encoding well before LC and other major library players got interested. Then there was XML, which blew everything out of the water.

    So I think many of us, especially the more progressive archivists like Gerry’s kids who came out of Wisconsin, had a really aggressive view about access and pushed hard on the library community to exploit their tools in the pre-Internet age until truly archival internet based tools became available. The Internet fanned the flames of radical archival access both from the archivists perspective and the user perspective, but I would like to believe we wanted wide access but could not effectively provide it other than through some really primitive library systems. Whether that was a minority of archivists or the general perspective is hard to estimate.

  12. I don’t believe the percent of collections that were counted as backlog was any different 40 years ago than it is now. What is different is the expectation today that everything will be known via the web.

    Forty years ago, researchers often found collections by reading other scholars work and seeing collections noted in footnotes. There was no central location to discover who had what collection even if it were processed with the exception of NUCMC. As a result there was no incentive to push for processing backlog since demand was relatively low.

    Today’s internet allows researchers to discover where collections are located through Google searches which may even indicate when a collection was donated and who holds those papers. Researchers want to know immediately what is in a collection and the concept “that everything is accessible via the web” foments higher expectations about where and when material is available.

    At the same time, archivists now feel a moral obligation to get information out about unprocessed/hidden collections more rapidly even if full finding aids are not available. I believe this change has been good for the profession and has democratized information about our collections and widened the number and type of researchers who use our collections

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