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A Question Of Interpretation: the role of archivists in an online age

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Presentation given at the Association of Canadian Archivists' Conference, 23 June 2007

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A Question Of Interpretation: the role of archivists in an online age

  1. 1. A Question of Interpretation The role of archivists in an online age Amanda Hill University of Manchester, UK
  2. 2. <ul><li>“ How others see us” </li></ul><ul><li>Do others see us? </li></ul><ul><li>Does it matter whether they see us? </li></ul>
  3. 3. Role of archivists <ul><li>Same as it ever was… </li></ul><ul><li>To provide access to information </li></ul><ul><li>To interpret our records for users through descriptions and exhibitions </li></ul><ul><li>To keep things safe </li></ul>
  4. 4. So what’s changed? Technology Expectations
  5. 5. Technology <ul><li>Rapidly changing </li></ul><ul><li>Opening up new audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Taking us out of our comfort zone </li></ul>
  6. 6. Expectations <ul><li>Users expect to be able to find everything on the Internet (preferably through search engines) </li></ul><ul><li>New audiences have their own requirements for interpretation, which may be different from those of traditional users </li></ul>
  7. 7. Archives Hub <ul><li>Developing since 1999: a union catalogue for archives held in universities, colleges and other organisations throughout the UK </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Funded by the JISC </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Now holds c.20,000 finding aids from 150 institutions </li></ul><ul><li>Funded for UK academic community, but free for anyone to use </li></ul>
  8. 8. Rapid change in role for archivists
  9. 9. Relationships with users <ul><li>Small staff in many archives </li></ul><ul><li>More contact between archivists and users than there often is in, for example, libraries and museums </li></ul><ul><li>We know our traditional users and their needs well </li></ul>
  10. 10. Gatekeeper <ul><li>Users had to talk to archivists before finding aids were available more widely </li></ul><ul><li>We interpreted our finding aids for them, within the repository </li></ul>Duke Humfrey’s Library, Bodleian, www.visitbritain.com
  11. 11. Gatekeeper <ul><li>Users had to talk to archivists before finding aids were available more widely </li></ul><ul><li>We interpreted our finding aids for them, within the repository </li></ul>Duke Humfrey’s Library, Bodleian, www.visitbritain.com There is a vast amount of information available at the Bodleian concerning its manuscripts, but only a tiny fraction is currently available online; we intend progressively to make more information available at this website, as and when resources permit . http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/medieval/medieval.htm
  12. 12. <ul><li>Work we’ve done in putting finding aids and digital versions of archives online has changed that gatekeeper role entirely </li></ul><ul><li>Our knowledge and expertise has to be transferred into the finding aid or metadata – many existing finding aids not up to the job </li></ul><ul><li>The user no longer ‘sees’ or is aware of the existence of the archivist </li></ul>Online, things change
  13. 13. Users <ul><li>May not need to know about archivists </li></ul><ul><li>… if they can find what they need online </li></ul>
  14. 14. Consequence of visit to Hub site Survey, May 2006, part of a JISC review of resource discovery services
  15. 15. We need to change what we do <ul><li>Different types of users have differing requirements </li></ul><ul><li>New interpretative skills are required to meet their respective needs </li></ul><ul><li>Cataloguing needs to take new context (and users) of finding aids into account </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Revisiting Archival Collections project </li></ul></ul>
  16. 16. Interpreting users’ needs <ul><li>Important to stay in touch with users </li></ul><ul><li>Some are easy to talk to – traditional users </li></ul><ul><li>Others more difficult – potential users, casual online users </li></ul>
  17. 17. Particular problem for Archives Hub as a purely online service <ul><li>Lack of direct contact with users </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Rely on online questionnaires or participation of contributing institutions </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Difficult to get significant level of response (survey fatigue) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Bribery works to a degree </li></ul></ul>
  18. 19. June 2005 (163 responses)
  19. 20. Target audience…
  20. 21. Current survey
  21. 22. Interpreting technology <ul><li>Understanding technological developments and applying them for the benefit of users and archivists </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Without implementing new technology for technology’s sake </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Sometimes easier to get funding for the new and exciting at the expense of core work </li></ul><ul><ul><li>… but some new developments are low-cost and easy to implement – so worth experimenting with </li></ul></ul>
  22. 23. Interpreting jargon <ul><li>300 archival terms provided to interpreters at a recent European conference </li></ul>
  23. 24. More jargon <ul><li>(Image of search interface featuring archival jargon) </li></ul><ul><li>Keep jargon away from end users! </li></ul>
  24. 25. Online finding aids <ul><li>Jargon-free </li></ul><ul><li>Written with a general audience in mind </li></ul><ul><li>Available through search engines </li></ul><ul><li>All collections catalogued, if only at a minimal level </li></ul><ul><ul><li>But the more detailed the better </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Linking to digital surrogates or originals where possible </li></ul><ul><li>Capable of displaying contributions from people outside the repository </li></ul>
  25. 26. Best of both worlds Technology Expectations Satisfied users
  26. 27. Side effects… <ul><li>In opening up resources online, archivists and other information professionals are becoming increasingly invisible… </li></ul><ul><li>… whilst reaching a larger audience than ever </li></ul>
  27. 28. Focus attention where it matters <ul><li>Paymasters </li></ul><ul><li>Advocates </li></ul>
  28. 29. Must find <ul><li>Meaningful ways of measuring: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Use </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Impact </li></ul></ul>
  29. 30. So… <ul><li>If our users can find what they need and easily understand it </li></ul><ul><li>If our paymasters understand and value what we do </li></ul><ul><li>It doesn’t matter if our professional public profile is low or non-existent… </li></ul><ul><li>… as long as the value and importance of our records and archives is understood </li></ul>
  30. 31. Gatekeeper (Image of Sigourney Weaver as the Gatekeeper in Ghostbusters) Keymaster (Image of Rick Moranis as the Keymaster in Ghostbusters)

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