More about Reference and Access: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections

You can order Reference and Access: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections from the Rowman & Littlefield site (and save 20% by using the promotional code 7S14ARCH). The Table of Contents is available there, and you can also read the pre-publication reviews from Sharon Thibodeau and Kathy Marquis. 

To help give you a better idea of what’s in the book, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: 

For most archivists and special collections librarians, serving the public by providing reference services and access to materials is the goal for which all other processes exist. The way archives address these needs has been affected by two related factors: changes in technology and an increased emphasis on meeting researcher needs. Many of the case studies in this volume reflect how those factors have inspired innovation, while others demonstrate the need to react to the realities of the current environment. Innovation in this area is thus fueled, as it often is, both by opportunities and evolutions in the organizational landscape.

Reference and Access: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections explores how archives of different sizes and types are increasing their effectiveness in serving the public and meeting internal needs. The case studies in this collection demonstrate new ways to interact with users to answer their questions, provide access to materials, support patrons in the research room, and manage reference and access processes. This volume is useful to those working in archives and special collections as well as other cultural heritage organizations and provides ideas ranging from the aspirational to the immediately implementable. It also provides students and educators in archives, library, and public history graduate programs a resource for understanding the issues driving change in the field today and the kinds of strategies archivists are using to meet these new challenges.

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Deconstructing reference and access services into their essential elements and including case studies that addressed all of these elements provided an overarching rationale for the selection of contributions to this volume. In a broad sense, providing reference and access services for users consists of:

  • interacting with people who have questions,
  • providing access to materials that meet researcher needs,
  • assisting researchers as they use materials, and
  • managing the processes needed to support reference and access.

Although certainly it’s possible to consider other activities as part of an active reference program, as Mary Jo Pugh does in Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts, these four areas seem to me to encapsulate the essential aspects of the function. In what ways, then, has archivists’ support for these activities changed, and how do the case studies in this collection demonstrate innovation in these areas?

First, how has the way people approach archives to ask questions changed? In many ways, this area of reference remains largely the same. Researchers still ask questions in person in the research room and via e-mail, telephone, and “snail mail” inquiries, however they now also pose questions on social media sites, such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Interacting with the public on social media often has a reference as well as an outreach component. In this collection, Gary Brannan’s case study about the West Yorkshire Archive Service and its use of scheduled open Web chats to answer researcher questions represents a new way of serving remote audiences and interacting in real time. In their wide-ranging case study on reviewing and updating reference systems, Jackie Couture and Deborah Whalen include implementing a Web chat widget on their archives Web site, a practice often found today on academic library sites.

These examples illustrate different ways of interacting to answer the questions of off-site patrons. But how have interactions during a reference interview taking place in the research room changed? Again, in many ways this kind of exchange remains fundamentally the same, but technologies can improve how archivists help researchers discover new collections. In their case study about the introduction of iPads into the research room, Cheryl Oestreicher, Julia Stringfellow, and Jim Duran discuss how being able to use a portable tablet to start users off on their exploration of online resources supports easier discovery of relevant resources in the physical collection.

The area that has undoubtedly seen the most change has been how archivists provide access to materials researchers need. Technology has been the primary catalyst and, when combined with a drive to actively make materials available before users ask for them, has resulted in many innovative practices designed to allow users to meet their own needs without mediation by archivists. Sara Snyder and Elizabeth Botten’s case study about integrating reference into usability testing for the Archives of American Art Web site illustrates the importance of treating a Web site as an interface for reference and one in which people can ideally fulfill many of their own information needs without the participation of an archivist. Jennie Levine Knies’s articulation of the University of Maryland’s exploration of enhancing access to collections through collaboration in digital humanities projects demonstrates the potential for increased discovery and analysis of archival materials when they are made available in diverse “publishing” models. And Lisa Snider eloquently reminds us that access to materials via our Web sites, of course, needs to be designed to accommodate the full range of differently abled users.

Archivists have also used technology to establish new ways of making materials available in response to researcher interest. In her case study, Michelle Light discusses her approach to a new set of challenges in creating a Web equivalent for a physical reading room in which to make two collections of born-digital materials available. In other cases, access can be made possible by something as simple as the acquisition of new scanning equipment together with expanded digitization policies, as Melanie Griffin and Matthew Knight’s case study describes. The avenues that digitization, both on demand and as part of a program, present for increased access are clear and well known, but as digitization programs in archives mature, it is interesting to see them become more integrated with other archival services, including reference. Greater input from both reference and processing staff into digitization priorities is one of many ways Emily Christopherson and Rachael Dreyer describe for strategically meeting researcher needs in a repository dedicated to the “More Product, Less Process (MPLP)” philosophy.

Another traditional part of providing access has been the work the archivist does to assist researchers in identifying relevant materials, either before or after the researcher is on site. The impact of MPLP on processing programs has been actively discussed in the literature, but assessments of the changes it necessitates in reference services are less common. Again the Christopherson and Dreyer case study dissects the ways in which three departments at the American Heritage Center (AHC)—reference, processing, and digitization—must all work together to provide the best possible experience for researchers working with varying levels of collection description. The heaviest burden for working with researchers falls on reference staff, as one would expect, and the archivists at AHC have explored a variety of creative strategies for providing the best possible reference experience for users. Marc Brodsky addresses a different aspect of the problem of mediating reference questions, asking how processes for training new reference archivists can be improved so that new staff can more quickly and efficiently become proficient in assisting researchers to locate relevant materials in their repository’s unique collections.

While technology and increased scanning mean that many researchers no longer need to visit a repository in person, for many patrons archival research still means spending time in the research room. Here again, while much remains the same, archivists are adopting and adapting technology to help improve that experience. While making iPads freely available to users (as described by Boise State University archivists) and allowing unlimited access to an advanced scanner in the research room (at the University of South Florida) seem like simple changes, the immediate benefits for both patrons and staff may be surprising.

But there are some problems that technology can’t solve on its own. While few archives or special collections will face exactly the same challenge Leanda Gahegan and Gina Rappaport did when the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives hosted the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, many may have occasion to host large groups of researchers—often larger than the available space can accommodate—for short periods of intense work. These authors also had to address the need to interact appropriately and respectfully with Native American researchers examining their own communities’ legacies as embodied in archival collections. These combined challenges required Gahegan and Rappaport to modify some standard reading room policies and also to familiarize themselves with some new best practices, including the “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.”

In addition to helping patrons in the research room, archivists must also monitor their activities and enforce policies that create a secure environment for the use of valuable materials. Sometimes it takes an unfortunate loss to make an organization review and update security policies. In their case study, Elizabeth Chase, Gabrielle M. Dudley, and Sara Logue describe how the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University identified and enforced a new suite of security procedures as well as how those new procedures were viewed by researchers and staff.

All of the processes through which archivists provide reference assistance and access to materials need, of course, to be managed. Proper policies, procedures, workflows, and infrastructure are as necessary for a successful reference program as a knowledgeable and user-focused staff. While revising and implementing new policies and systems may seem like an intimidating prospect, Jackie Couture and Deborah Whalen explain how they successfully tackled it at Eastern Kentucky University using only the resources they had available or could obtain for free. Many of the other cases studies in this volume also include elements that might be properly considered in the realm of “management”: Light discusses copyright and donor relations, Christopherson and Dreyer address interdepartmental cooperation and communicating with donors, Knies explores establishing successful collaborative relationships with faculty and technology colleagues, and Brodksy discusses training of new staff. Other case studies describe how existing policies are evaluated and how new policies are created and implemented. In addition, Snider’s recommendations for increasing usability of archives’ Web sites and Snyder and Botten’s introduction to conducting Web site usability testing clearly are of value to managers responsible for services including and beyond reference and access.

While each case study in this collection describes a specific response to a challenge or opportunity, I think each also reflects a philosophy of experimentation that is perhaps the most critical ingredient necessary for any organization interested in developing its own “innovative” practices. In this regard I hope this book and the others in the series encourage all readers to consider how their own work could benefit from the exploration of new ideas and tools. The books in this series can, by definition, include only a small sample of the kinds of approaches being developed by archives and special collections around the world to meet the challenges of staying relevant and adaptable in today’s complex environment. These case studies will give readers many useful ideas to consider as well as the inspiration to come up with tomorrow’s innovations.


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