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A future without mediation? Online access, archivists, and the future of archival research

Presentation by Sigrid McCausland at RAILS7, 10 May 2011

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A future without mediation? Online access, archivists, and the future of archival research

  1. 1. A future without mediation? Online access, archivists and the future of archival researchSigrid McCausland RAILS 10 May 2011<br />
  2. 2. Users of archives are increasingly physically remote, but we still tend to measure success primarily in terms of personal visits to an archive repository. This is not surprising, as our profession is generally focused on the physicality of documents and the secure accommodation that we need to provide for them, and the understanding and interpretation of physical archives is crucial to many areas of research. <br />Jane Stevenson (2008) ‘The Online Archivist: A Positive Approach to the Digital Age’, p.91<br />
  3. 3. Outline<br />Introduction<br />Definitions<br />Online access and archival research<br />Mediation and archival reference practice<br />A new paradigm?<br />Conclusion<br />
  4. 4. Online access<br />In archives today, this usually means either or both:<br /><ul><li>access to information about records
  5. 5. access to digitised surrogates of paper records</li></li></ul><li>Mediation (OED)<br /> Agency or action as an intermediary; the state or fact of serving as an intermediate agent, a means of action, or a medium of transmission; instrumentality<br />
  6. 6. Disintermediate (Macquarie)<br /> to connect directly to the primary source of a commercial product, thus cutting out distributers, retailers, wholesalers and all other intermediaries. –disintermediation, noun<br />
  7. 7. Archival research <br /> Archival research means accessing and using original records, created by organisations or individuals and placed under archival control, as sources for intellectual enquiry.<br />
  8. 8. Archives user types<br /><ul><li>Family historians
  9. 9. Professional researchers
  10. 10. Local area historians
  11. 11. Academics
  12. 12. University students
  13. 13. Secondary school students
  14. 14. Other – inc architects, journalists, visual artists</li></ul>(CAARA/ASA (2007) Archives Survey 2007, pp. 46-48)<br />
  15. 15. Archives users<br />
  16. 16. ‘Inherent’ and institutional factors<br /><ul><li>Lack coherence making retrieval more difficult
  17. 17. Inadequacy of finding aids – coverage and comprehensibility
  18. 18. Organised according to provenance not subject
  19. 19. Limitation of ready reference tools
  20. 20. Closed stacks, no browsing possible</li></li></ul><li>Human factors (1)<br /><ul><li>Inferential methods of searching based on archivists’ knowledge
  21. 21. Users don’t know how to research primary materials
  22. 22. Users have less experience with using archives than libraries</li></li></ul><li>Human factors (2)<br /><ul><li>Interaction between archivists and users is more intense than between librarians and users
  23. 23. Archivists have often processed the materials and bring deep knowledge of content</li></ul>(adapted from Duff 2010, p.118)<br />
  24. 24. Online access – one view<br /> Digitised records available online are … accessible to all, irrespective of location, and at a time to suit individual convenience and preference rather than reading room hours of opening.<br />(Macpherson, P. (2010) Building a better horse and buggy: The privileging of access in reading rooms over online access, p. 64)<br />
  25. 25. Online access – another view<br /> On a broader, more philosophic level, the notion of digitisation as an agent of equality needs a bit of scrutiny. Contrary to the rhetoric, it is not really value-free. Databases are like maps, they are representations of reality and similarly a model set of relationships…which means that selection is always involved.<br />(Susan Crean, (2011) National Archives Blues : Is a precious Canadian asset being digitized to death?)<br />
  26. 26. A new paradigm?<br /><ul><li>Digital access should come first and archival practice should be shaped by this imperative
  27. 27. ‘a philosophy that privileges the user and promotes an ethos of sharing, collaboration and openness’ (Joy Palmer, 2009)</li></li></ul><li>Conclusion<br /><ul><li>Archival notions of uniqueness and control are being challenged
  28. 28. Mediation has a future but not in its traditional form
  29. 29. Archival institutions and archivists need to embrace user engagement on many fronts, not just reference services</li>