Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Code4Lib Preconference: Archival Discovery and Use

On Monday, March 24, I attended a day-long preconference on Archival Discovery and Use, held as part of Code4Lib 2014 in Raleigh. This workshop proved interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it wasn't being led by archivists but by two technology/development librarians. This allowed the archivists in the room (about 1/3 of the 30+ people in attendance) to hear how others understand archival use.

Throughout the day, we had short (10-15) presentations followed by 20-30 minute group discussions, with each group focusing on the presentation from a different angle. Presentation topics ranged from the effectiveness of archival finding aids to integration of finding aids and digitized components to crowdsourcing as a means of enhancing archival description. My group was tasked with questioning the presentations from a point of view related to assessment -- how do we measure the effectiveness of our practices and programs, and how do we interpret user data to inform our work/development?

In these small group discussions, it became clear that the archivist's notion of the archival researcher and his/her needs doesn't always match that of the technology folks. One prominent question framed most of our conversations: should discovery systems be optimized for those conducting in-depth research in the archives (an audience which varies based on your archives' focus), or do we need to present our archival finding aids and digital collections in a way that best reaches the masses and garners more hits (an approach driven largely by analytics)? Most archivists in the group advocated for a focus on the former, while most of the developers and digital collections librarians advocated for the latter.

The framing of the discussions as well as the ensuing conversations reiterated the need for archivists to be (very) vocal in terms of advocating for their researchers in the development or use of technologies aimed at enabling archival discovery. Of course, this is predicated on understanding your users' needs and workflow. This requires a focus on assessment -- particularly qualitative assessment -- as well as an understanding by all staff of who the primary audiences for archival discovery tools are in your particular archives. If archivists don't prioritize this type of user assessment, who will?