The Society of American Archivists (SAA) held its annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio from Aug. 16 through Aug. 22. 

Dara A. Baker, head archivist for the Naval Historical Collection at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. moderated a panel of four in the session, “Yes, I Google Better: How Technology Has Changed Archival Reference.” The panel consisted of:

  • Abigail Nye, Reference and Instruction Archivist, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Dennis Riley, Assistant Director, Archives & Records Management, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation
  • Jan Blodgett, Archivist & Records Management Coordinator, Davidson College, N.C.
  • Russell L. Gasero, Archivist, Reformed Church in America

The speakers are employed by religious, corporate, educational and federal government institutions.

Prior to the session, Baker polled SAA listservs for pertinent questions around the topic.

Can't Find the Finding Aid

Baker asked the panelists the following question: "Are you, as a savvy reference archivist, OK with the fact that not all repositories make their finding aids available in Encoded Archival Description (EAD) format via some interoperable interface? Can you still find information in other repositories despite the fact that they don’t follow standards?"

The panel's prepared response was, “Yes. Not having EAD or EAC is not the end of the world or even a major delimit on access to collections. Institutional knowledge, good metadata and multiple access points for users ensure access.”

Riley asserted, “I’ve never worked in a full time position that has comprehensive EAD-DACS compliance finding aids. If I can’t devise three to five ways to skin the cat, then perhaps I could do more to know the subject matter — archivists should not rely only on finding aids to help patrons find the answers they need. Institutional knowledge and subject matter are important reference tools."

Blodgett followed, “Many of my peers don’t have EAD or EAC either and our students look across universities for comparable tools. I’m interested in leveraging students’ and staff skill sets to market our collections. The reference interview is an opportunity to teach students how to use our information.”

Nye offered the lone dissenting opinion: “Our situation is a little different. If our collections don’t have an EAD finding aid, that’s because they haven’t been processed yet or they’re so small that a catalog record suffices, but it is helpful to take a step back: how are we providing the best access for our users? EAD finding aids are only one tool to accomplish that goal.”

Gasero clarified, “Students today have not known life without Google; however, most researchers who come to me for archival reference do not use it. If researchers have questions that finding aids do not satisfy, I do my best to lead them to appropriate sources or sites.”

Baker closed with a comment. “I think of EAD as a standard that should have a return on investment. Following EAD increases interoperability because it can work with aggregators like WorldCat but what are our measureable benefits? Archivists must consider the benefits of outreach, awareness, and speed and if they outweigh the costs of the effort, tech support, and training needed to create EAD-standard finding aids.”

Where Does Live Chat Fit in Archival Reference?

Baker's follow up question was, "There is increasing pressure in academic libraries to use 'live chat' software among general reference chat. It is fathomable that the same pressure could be applied to archives and if so, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Also, I would like to know if repositories are getting reference questions or appointment requests via Twitter or other social media outlets."

The panel once again offered a prepared response before diving into details. "Archival reference is not fast food. Live chat and social media can be fantastic tools if you have the staff, knowledge and support to use them as intended — for quick, rapid response. On-demand or 24/7 reference represents an expansion of archival services: now that our material is available digitally 24/7, we must acknowledge that our users expect us to be available more than 9 to 5, especially in a university or corporate setting."

Nye said, “I’d go for it. We realize our users expect us to be much more available, so we need to explore new ways to interact with our patrons. Tools like live chat and social media can be of great benefit and most are free.”

Gasero's response: “I don’t use live chat and I’m not likely to. I don’t want to feel like the Help Desk tech. Reference is an opportunity for outreach and live chat limits us in how much we can respond.”

Riley agreed, “If this is how patrons want to interact with us — we have to consider, and remember our own frustrations with customer service live chat, something that can be extremely frustrating. I can’t always provide the old-fashioned, fully-formed reference responses in a chat situation.”