Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Access in Archives

I'm back, to ponder the nature of service in the archival world. Get ready to gaze at those navels, people.

When I left the realm of "pure" archives, almost 7 years ago, most large archival institutions had *some* digital content available online, and had EAD finding aids available in union catalogs or online repositories. They had websites that mostly directed patrons on how to come in to the physical building and do research. It was at this point that I left archives and went into cataloging/library metadata.

For a few years I worked as an original cataloger and maintained the ILS for a small university library. Then I worked as a metadata liaison between an archives, digital library, and cataloging department of a medium-large research library. And then...well, then I came back to archives.

After having worked in places where ensuring usability was always my top priority, it was strange to come back to archives, especially as I remembered it. Archives have not historically been known for their accommodating nature when it comes to user needs. In fact, many archivists prided themselves on how restrictive their use policies were.

However, luckily just as I was returning to the world of archives, I got to see the results of the most recent SAA conference and some of the discussions that are percolating through the community. A small sample of some session titles: "Exploring the User Experience with Digital Primary Sources", "Disruptive Components: Reimagining Archival Access Systems", "Archives without Walls".

While some of this was happening when I was an archival student and young professional archivist, mostly at that time we were just trying to come to grips with the realities of electronic records and digitization. Usability was an afterthought in many ways. But now--! As a person whose career focused exclusively on the user for many years (and I hope this job will allow me to stay focused on the user), I feel so much more comfortable now than I did when I was pondering this move back to archives.

The moral of this blog post is best stated by Socrates (forgive the translation as I assume most people do not read Ancient Greek): "the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but towards building the new."

I should make a motivational poster.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.