I recently attended the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference in Annapolis, MD. While there I attended a session titled “How Can I help You: The Changing Nature of Reference in the 21st Century”. A panel of seven—including reference archivists, school teachers, and genealogy researchers—presented. They provided a variety of viewpoints on reference assistance in archives. Through their presentations they identified common themes experienced across perspectives.
The importance of knowledgeable reference personnel was one of the most common themes. Several presenters opined that having experts who know the collections well is very helpful to researchers for both discovering materials, narrowing topics, and focusing research. It was mentioned, more than once, that researchers often don’t know that materials exist or which collections to search. However, consulting reference archivists knowledgeable about repository collections was a great way to discover materials and narrow down useful sources for research projects. This being the case, the panel agreed that the archive reference interview was still a very valuable tool for helping researchers.
Other common themes discussed include the idea of customer expectations, changes in customer demographics, and challenges researchers face using digitized collections. Reference archivists cited technological advancements have changed customer behaviors. Customers expect quicker responses and online access. They said customers often don’t plan to visit the archival institution at all, but want to remotely access any materials of interest. Several panelists also pointed out that younger people, even children, are becoming interested in primary resources--resulting in a younger clientele. With more and more archival materials being offered online, both reference archivists and archives users agreed having reference help available was still a need. It was said more access means more difficulty finding what’s wanted. It also was pointed out that researchers might need help finding context and the larger collection associated with a picture or document that they find through a Google search.
All in all, the discussion and the Q&A session afterwards were very informative and helping all of us improve the user experience at our archives. The tone was educational, but lighthearted. The variety of viewpoints was well thought out and useful for me (an archivist) to hear. I was impressed with the quality of information that I was able to get out of the session and thought it was well worth the time.
Archivist – Liberty University