Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Walking the tightrope': article for NZLIMJ

The following is an article I wrote for the latest edition of New Zealand Library & Information Management Journal (Vol 52, Issue No 3 Oct 2011 ), on the balancing of archival principles with web technology.

The public library has been used by many, if not most, members of society—from toddlers to lifelong learners. Yet how many people have ever used an archive? How many know where their local archive is, or why it exists? Unfortunately (or thankfully, depending on one’s viewpoint), the use of archives pales in comparison to that of libraries and museums. The perception of archives, and those who staff them, remains squarely in the shadowy realm of dust and dank.

Yet the far-from-dim world of digital technology provides new opportunities to make potential users aware of archives, and encourage their use. Web sites, chat technology, and interactive web tools (referred to as Web 2.0) are “changing the ways that archivists interact with their patrons,” and how patrons “approach archival research and how they view their archival interactions” (Daines & Nimer, 2009). Digital technology can also improve the services already drawn upon by archival users (such as genealogists, historians, and students), and make them more effective.

Archives—to create awareness and promote use—have embraced some of this digital technology. Online exhibitions have become a common feature on the websites of archives, and virtual reference (including chat service) is being offered by many repositories. However the move from onsite to online has raised a number of concerns, from the loss of archival principles to the provision of far-from-effective service.

If the use of digital technology is to play an important role in the perception of, and access to, archives in the twenty first century, the implementation of that technology is increasingly pertinent. Regardless of their current shortcomings, archives need to continue to invest in digital technology—not only to avoid becoming “quaint anachronisms in a world of instant data communication, high technology, and rapid change” (Jimerson, 1989, p.333), but to provide effective service for current (and future) users of archives.

The Digital World Meets Archives
Effectively harnessing digital technology offers archives and their users countless possibilities. As Lester argues, “technological developments mean that the web offers archives the chance to develop new and innovative ways of conveying their message,” allowing users “a greater exploratory and active role, thus enhancing the learning experiences available” (2006, p.88). Both the access and use of the repository’s holdings can be improved through digital technology.

An archive’s homepage and its web presence (online exhibitions, themed websites for children, and social media) “offers greater prospects for promotion” (Lester, p.87). But it is the improvement of archival services that digital technology offers the most potential. Being online makes access available to reference services, collections and records previously off-limits due to geographical location or time restraints. “Many more people will have the opportunity to exploit the archive’s holdings, through research facilities such as online finding aids and email requests, and digitalised or transcribed representations of specific records” (Lester, p.88). For budding genealogists, busy historians, or students without means of travel, the digital realm opens a new door to the archive.

While historians conducting in-depth are likely to prefer browsing physical records (Duff & Johnston, 2002), the increasing number of non-academic users with less time or less needs would benefit more from web innovations (Cox, 2007). Genealogists using Archives New Zealand would find its digitalised records of the New Zealand Military Forces extremely helpful in their search for family activity during the First World War, while the in-depth administrative histories offered on Archway [Archives New Zealand’s finding aid] provide a great source of secondary information for students and others, at the click of a mouse.

Digital technology also empowers users previously on the margins of archival use. “Adaptive technologies” have the potential to “facilitate reference and access for handicapped patrons, including the visually impaired” (Cox, 2007). Optical character recognition for the blind, and other audio, visual and speech systems designed to enable further use by those with physical and mental disabilities, is just some examples of how digital technology could aid this often neglected demographic.

Similar interactive technology is also being used for the general user. The development of blogs, wikis, tagging and folksonomies—referred to as Web 2.0 technology—is increasingly employed by archives to encourage user participation and collaboration. Theses cumulative changes in digital technology enable software developers and end-users to use the World Wide Web in new and innovative ways to what it was originally intended (Wikipedia). It is also changing how archivists provide their services: “Web 2.0 technologies have transformed the Internet into a participatory experience,” technologies that could “radically re-contextualize [the archivist’s] work”(Daines & Nimer).

Blogs—websites formatted to provide diary-like entries of an individual or institution—“can be used by archives to publicize new items in the collection, as well as ongoing activities and events, while allowing for questions and feedback from users” (Perkins, 2011). The City of Vancouver Archive’s AuthentiCity blog, for example, uses photos, digitalised records, informative content and social media links to update users and promote further use.

Collaborative websites (wikis) that allow users to add or modify content about a repository’s finding aids, resources, and records, aid both users and archivists in innovative ways. Drawing on the users knowledge of certain collections, or their own search methods, provides a wealth of information for the effective use of an archive, with little effort to the archivist. “Reference archivists could take a similar approach [to reference librarians] in utilizing wikis to create a knowledge base of frequently asked questions” (Daines & Nimer), to the relief of the ever-busy archivist.

As well as adding content, allowing users to employ individualised keywords (‘tagging’) within online finding aids can enhance “the search and retrieval process as it allows users to implement their own natural language vocabulary and not be restrained by authoritative cataloguing terminology” (Yakel & Reynolds, 2006, as cited in Cox, 2007). In this way folksonomies “allow for another layer of access and description to be added to a collection, one which may establish connections archivists are unaware of” (Perkins). One example of this is the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collection, a website which allows registered users to tag items.

However user participation through Web 2.0 also presents a number of pitfalls that archives need to be aware of. These include undermining the skills of professional content creators and archivists, the threat to “the authority and authenticity of archival collections” (Perkins), and the increase of user demands. As well as Web 2.0 tools, archives have to ensure that their general online services are effective. While digital technology can aid service, it can also perpetuate the problems experienced onsite, or worse, create a number of new issues.

Walking the Tightrope: Online exhibitions
According to Cook, public programming (including various digital technologies) taken to the extreme could “undermine both archival theory and the very richness of that documentary heritage which the new public programming would make available” (Cook, 1990/91). Too heavy a move towards the user from a materials-focus (and its related methods of appraisal, description and provision) could have major implications for the future of archives. Instead, Cook suggests a balance between increased promotion and core archival principles needs to be found.

Such a balancing act is particularly evident in online archival exhibitions. As Lester points out, if items are simply digitalised and made available without an emphasis on the archival principles of provenance and original order, or with no description of its context, the archival value of the record is lost (2006). Instead of simply downloading a digitalised record, or viewing it online as a stand-alone image, it should be accompanied by “the circumstances of their composition” in order to help the user determine “meaning, and why they were written” (Lester, p.93).

In order to combat the loss of context one would usually gain through the onsite exploration of collections, online exhibitions employ digital tools such as hyperlinks to point to contextual information, secondary sources, and finding aids to the record on show. Although “the virtual exhibition cannot provide an encounter with the ‘real thing’”, online tools can “allow the user to understand and be able to do far more than she or he could do in a physical exhibition” (Lester, p.95).

An Archives New Zealand exhibition, An Impressive Silence,[1] used video, hyperlinks and descriptive content to ground the records in the wider context from which they were created. Its free-flowing form and the rich historical information on offer provided an innovative source for students and others wanting to learn about New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War.

However the records themselves were pulled from their archival bonds without reference to provenance and original order. Apart from a title and an archive reference number, the user is not told who created the record, where it came from, and what else is the series. Such a neglect of archival principles, besides keeping Cook awake at night, illustrates the record’s loss of archival value when digitalised and displayed online. And although these issues are still present in a physical exhibition, the online exhibition’s use of digital tools gives the archivist a better chance of not falling short.

Passchendaele Casualty Forms, another Archives New Zealand online exhibition, takes a different approach. Focused more on records themselves, this exhibition displays Army personnel forms alphabetically in order to seemingly meet the needs of genealogists used to searching by name. “Genealogists… wanted lists of names, or names indexes, or search engines that retrieved by name to facilitate their research” (Duff & Johnson, 2003, p.85). Large digital reproductions of the records indexed in a way familiar to these users meets such a need. Yet in this case, the emphasis on the records far outweighs the contextual information given, and like An Impressive Silence, does not find the successful ‘middle line’ (Lester, p.93). Unfortunately for the user, neither exhibition utilized Web 2.0 technology, which could have added a unique layer of interpretation to the records on display.

Education, and not just of historical facts, is a major component to online exhibitions. As well as creating awareness around the topic on show, educating the user on how and why archives are organised in order to promote more effective use is equally as important. For a generation of Google users, the uniqueness of archival principles can be alienating. If online exhibitions are light on archival principles then they fail in the task of archival education, albeit in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In the case of online exhibitions, digital technology may increase use; but whether that use is effective is open to debate.

Onsite vs Online Reference
One aspect of archival service that has radically changed through the use of digital technology is reference. “Technology now allows users to submit their queries… at any time from any place in the world” (American Library Association, 2008). Users, wherever they may be, can now contact a reference archivist electronically via a website or email, or in real-time using instant messaging and other means.

Virtual reference provides a range of new opportunities for those previously cut off from the archive due to disability, geography, or time. As described above, digital technology (and Web 2.0) can facilitate reference service in new and innovative ways. However it also creates new headaches for archives. Not only does virtual reference create more work for the archivist, the archivist’s work is expected to be carried out ‘instantly’; that is, at the speed of which Internet users have come to except.

The digital medium itself also provides issues. During onsite reference, archivists employ a number of verbal and nonverbal cues to make the user feel at ease, and to determine the user’s information need. Complex question negotiation is used in order to effectively match the user’s real need to the repository’s holdings (Long, 1989, p.45), while instruction is provided so the user can “learn more about the collections by carrying out their own research” (Trace, 2006, p.134). A rapport between the archivist and user ensures these components are successfully met in order to be effective.

Such techniques, however, are difficult to replicate in a virtual setting. “Unfortunately, chat rooms are not as easily navigated as a face-to-face conversation” (Cox, 2007), and the lack of verbal cues creates problems during and in closing the conversation. To help make up for the lack of cues one would experience face-to-face, archivists use “text characteristics or characteristics of nonverbal cues such as punctuation, emoticons, font, capital letters or abbreviations” (Duff, 2011). These cues go some way in ensuring online users receive “the same communication and interpersonal skills” as other forms of reference (ALA, 2008).

According to ALA guidelines [there are no virtual reference guidelines as yet for archivists, an issue in itself], question negotiation is supposed to take place during remote reference. However time restraints, and the issue of writing versus speaking, can impact the quality of the exchange. I experienced this firsthand during a Library of Congress online chat—there was no reference interview, no question negotiation, and the process itself felt rushed. Compared to my onsite experience at the Macmillan Brown library, where I received a degree of question negotiation, the virtual reference was far from effective (and enjoyable).

Another major issue is instruction. Considering the difficulty most people have when confronted with the archival principles of provenance and original order, education plays an important role in the effective use of an archive. However this educational component can often fall short during virtual reference. A study by Duff & Fox found that “reference archivists spend almost half their time at the reference desk teaching onsite users how to use archival systems, however, remote reference services rarely involves instruction” (Duff & Fox, 2006, as cited in Duff, 2011). Again, virtual reference has a lot of complex issues to contend with if it is to ensure a service equal to onsite reference.

Nilsen argues that digital technology “is not improving or speeding up reference service… but perpetuating problems that have not been resolved in face-to-face-reference” (Nilsen, 2004, as cited in Cox, 2007). Likewise, exhibitions that do not strike a balance between interpretive information and archival principles fail to provide “a learning experience grounded in the content of the record,” at the expense of the document’s “archival significance and value” (Lester, p.96).

Having recently viewed of two online archival exhibitions, and experienced both onsite and online reference, Nilsen and Lester’s concerns seemed vindicated. The seeds of superior service were there, but issues with the digital technology I encountered meant delivery and service never fully bloomed.
However, issues concerning effective digital service are not the result of digital technology itself. Rather, it is the lack of effective education, investment and evaluation of the delivery of online services that is hindering the maximum use of digital technology by archives. Time, energy and funding would go some way in resolving the issues currently experienced in the digital realm. A key to this includes the training of staff in the effective use of digital technology: “only through up-to-date training” can archivists “expand their knowledge and refine their skills in response to the changes brought about by social and technological developments” (Luo, 2009, p.210).

Online exhibitions, blogs, wikis and instant messaging are all tools; tools (like appraisal and description) that need practice, training, and more practice. Archives and archivists should not be scared to get their hands, or in this case, fingertips dirty. New users and new technology demand it.

American Library Association (2008). Guidelines for Implementing and Maintaining Virtual Reference Services. Accessed 5 May 2011, from

Cook, T. (1990/91). Viewing the world upside down: Reflections on the theoretical underpinning of archival public programming. Archivaria, 31 (Winter), 123-134.

Cox, R., & the University of Pittsburgh archives students (2007). Machines in the archives: Technology and the coming transformation of archival reference. First Monday, 12(11). Accesses 11 May from

Daines, J.G., & Nimer, C.L. (18 May, 2009). Web 2.0 and archives. Accessed 12 May 2011 from

Duff, W. M. & Johnson, C. A. (2002). Accidentally found on purpose: Information seeking behaviour of historians. Library Quarterly, 72(4), 472-496.

Duff, W. (2011). Module 7: Archival Reference, & Module 8: The Changing Face of Archival Researched. Accessed from

Jimerson, R. C. (1989). Redefining archival identity: Meeting user needs in the Information Society. American Archivist, 52(3), 332-340.

Lester, P. (2006). Is the virtual exhibition the natural successor to the physical? Journal of the Society of Archivists, 27(1), 85-101.

Long, L. J. (1989). Question negotiation in the archival setting: The use of interpersonal communication techniques in the reference interview. American Archivist, 52(1), 40-50.

Luo, L. (2009). Effective training for chat reference personnel: An exploratory study. Library and Information Science Research, 31(4) 210-224.

Perkins, G. (2011). Web 2.0 and Archives (Daines and Nimer). Accessed 12 May 2011 from

Trace, C. B. (2006). For love of the game: An ethnographic analysis of archival reference work. Archives and Manuscripts, 34(1), 124-143.

Web 2.0. (2011). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 18 May 2011 from

[1] An Impressive Silence is currently offline, but is expected to be made available once it is migrated to the new platform. See

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