Archivists on the Issues: Intellectual Access to Archives

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from regular writer for I&A’s blog, Lindy Smith, Reference Archivist at Bowling Green State University’s Music Library and Bill Schurk Sound Archives.

In my final post on access and accessibility in archives, I am examining intellectual access. By this, I mean the language, theory, practices, and other non-physical barriers that exist in archives. Once a patron has navigated the obstacles of digital access and physical access that I discussed in my previous posts, they finally make it to our reading rooms either in person or virtually and want to use our collections. What gets in the way of this process?

Description can often get in the way, sometimes through its absence and sometimes through its presence. When description is non-existent or not online or not accessible or too minimal to be useful, it is detrimental to access. This is not news to anyone. But sometimes seemingly great description can also be a barrier to access. Say you have an important, highly used collection and you decide to write a DACs-compliant EAD finding aid at the item level, post it online with excellent SEO and cross list it in all appropriate union catalogs. It is a thing of beauty. It has extensive notes, a detailed inventory, and follows archival standards. It is easy to find. If you know where to look.

But then you have an ESL patron who speaks limited English and cannot read it all. Or a seventh grader working on a History Day project who has a middle school reading level and does not understand some of the terminology. Or a patron who is completely unfamiliar with archival description and does not understand the complicated series structure or how to use the detailed information you have painstakingly input. Based on my experience in various reading rooms, these kinds of casual patrons make up a significant portion of our users.

There’s something to be said for gaining familiarity with the systems in place, but for the patron who only wants to make one visit to see something for personal reasons or the student using it for one class, or the patron who is frustrated by a first visit and never comes back, our systems are exclusionary. We cannot write description for everyone, but it is important to recognize that language, reading level, structure, jargon, and many other factors can hinder access for some users.

Many of these issues can be mitigated with good reference help, but this leads to another question I think about often: how do we determine an appropriate balance of labor between patrons and archivists? How much do we require them to do and how much are we willing to do for them? What is policy mandated and what is grey area? What can we change to improve the patron experience? Obviously, patrons need to take the first step to make contact. They need to provide information about the subject of their interest or the items they’d like to request. They need to adhere to any established policies regarding registration information, payment for reproduction, collection handling, etc. Archivists have to respond to requests, pull requested materials, and explain necessary paperwork and policies.

But between this is a whole world of negotiation, personal preference, and available resources. How much time do (can) we spend with a single patron? Where do we draw the line? I like to think that we should be willing to take more on ourselves as the gatekeepers to make things easier and more pleasant for our patrons, but that is not fair when so many of us are already overloaded with work. On the other hand, it is not fair to put all of the work on our users, especially when it is our policies that are creating extra work for everyone.

Many archives have policies regarding remote research time, but what about patrons who require additional assistance with finding aids or computers or microfilm readers or handling fragile collections or the photocopier? How do we ensure smooth hand offs to other archivists when schedules require that multiple staff members be involved? How do we enforce policies that require official ID cards when we are trying to reach out to user groups that may not possess them? How do we respond to concerns about patron confidentiality when we are storing information about patrons and their research topics? How do we reassure patrons who feel targeted by security policies that require surveillance?

How might we rethink our policies and procedures to make things easier for everyone involved? While it is not a magic bullet or a possibility for everyone, there is something to be said for tapping into aspects of industry or libraries that are already familiar to our patrons. Along these lines, there are some technological solutions to help streamline the reading room experience. The biggest and best known in Aeon, which is a great product, but prohibitively expensive for most of us. Other archives have come up with in-house solutions using existing free products, like Trello or Google Forms.

At my institution, we have been working with our web developer, access services department, and catalogers to come up with a solution that allows us to treat special collections materials like ordinary library materials. Briefly, our web developer came up with a button that is enabled in our catalog on materials that have the Lib[rary] Use Only status that allows users to request items for future use. It generates a form that collects name and contact information as well as the date they would like to use the item(s) that is emailed to the appropriate collection. Patrons can also request items on site without scheduling them ahead of time. We use the emails as pull slips and place the items on our hold shelf. When the patrons arrive, we set up a courtesy card in our ILS (Integrated Library System- we use Sierra) that allows them to use only special collections materials (a proper courtesy card with ordinary borrowing privileges has an associated fee but a special collections card is free). We then check the materials out to their account while they’re using it on site and check it back in once they’ve finished. We explain at the time of checkout that they are not allowed to leave our floor with the items and we have not had any issues with this. The one drawback is that we do not yet have all of our special collections in the catalog, which is where our fabulous catalogers come in to create records. We are also in the process of implementing ArchivesSpace and are hoping that our developer will be able to create a similar request feature for use there. All special collections will eventually be represented in both places.

Obviously, a solution like this is only available to archives with access to an ILS and some developer time. If you are interested, our web developer has made the request button code available on GitHub. But if you think outside the box, you may be able to come up with your won solution with the resources available to you. Libraries have been using similar systems for decades to track use and it is past time for archives to do the same.

My posts here have been much more question-based than answer-filled, but these are important issues with lots of room for discussion. I look forward to continuing that discussion with any of you who are interested and hope you will take the opportunity to use some of these questions to help examine your own work.

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