Posted by: bluesyemre | January 24, 2019

How can you help an #archivist to help you? Reference service from our side of the desk


Visiting an archives has something in common with using any public service. In each interaction with a service or a staff person, you’re seeing the small tip of a very large iceberg. Behind-the-scenes people, tasks, and systems that you may never see all unite to affect the experience you’ll have.

On this blog we’ve tried to give you a sense of what archival work is like, and how this might be reflected in your experience of using the rare or unpublished documents in archives. We’ve looked at how archivists appraise, selectorganize, and describe records. Today we’ll pull back the curtain on another large component of archival work: reference service or working with archives users to provide access to archival records.

There are some great guides out there for researchers planning to visit an archives (we’ve linked to some below). But in this post, we’d also like to reveal a little of what reference is like from our side of the desk. We hope that this will help you save time and avoid unnecessary frustration: if you know why things are the way they are, you can help us to help you.

In a way, everything we do in archives is related to reference: the very reason we collect, preserve, and describe records is so that people can learn from them. And there’s no more rewarding part of our job than helping people find information about the past that solves their present-day problem or changes their view of themselves or the world.

First, let’s look at some of the people and processes involved in reference. Then we’ll address what this means for us as archives workers and so for you as a researcher.

Who participates in reference?

Reference involves a meeting of minds: people who have questions come together with people who can guide them to sources for answers. And, don’t forget, everyone using the archives benefits from the minds of the past who speak to us through the records they have left behind.

Staff who provide reference services in an archives can include archivists themselves as well as reference clerks, archives assistants, or reception staff. Reference also involves technical specialists who digitize analogue records or convert electronic records into special access copies.

Researchers who use references services come from all walks of life, from students to seniors and from archeologists to artists. Inquirers may be writing book-length studies or they may be casually exploring a single historical fact. Of course the user group of a particular archives is partly determined by what the archives collects. For example, here at the Region of Peel Archives, one of our user groups includes government employees who are working to ensure our community runs fairly and smoothly.

When and where does reference happen?

In movies an archives-like storehouse is often a gloomy inner sanctum where a monkish guardian presides over mounds of books and manuscripts. This character is either zealously overprotective of his dusty charges or so vague that he leaves inquirers to rummage around by themselves. Sometimes fictional archivists even lend out documents.

The reality is that reference services operate in an organized and controlled fashion using modern information technology. Reference can happen

  • At a distance without anyone conversing: by, say, posting material online along with the all-important information that tells you what (and why) it is; or by compiling and posting online research guides to common types of records.
  • At a distance with lots of dialogue over email, phone, or even social media.
  • In person in the archival institution, by asking and answering questions, and by physically sharing access to documents.

Regardless of the space – physical or cyber – in which archivists and researchers come together, they all happen in a place of privacy. Archives workers are professionally and ethically bound to treat your inquiry and all your information confidentially (unless you request otherwise).

Why do reference?

So why are reference services needed in the first place? There are two major reasons. One is to help archives users match their research inquiries with potentially useful archival material. The other is to mediate access to the records themselves.

Finding the stuff

Just as in libraries, the world of archival information is vast and complex as are the systems used to organize and catalogue it. Staff who specialize in having a forest-and-trees sense of it help you explore and use it.

The information captured in archives can be especially tricky to navigate: archives are organized (“arranged”) and catalogued (“described”) in unique ways; while this type of organization ultimately will help you to understand the records, it can take some getting used to. Reference staff can help you

  • Clarify and focus your research question to make it practicable.
  • Find out what the archives holds.
  • Use tools created by archives staff to navigate archives (finding aids, databases, and inventories).
  • Understand the policies and services of the archives.
  • Get ideas about other places you might look if the archives can’t help you.

Using the stuff

Access to most archival records held by institutions is mediated and facilitated by staff – you can’t help yourself to records off the shelf or browse them casually. Instead you’ll need to work with staff to figure out what records to consult. Then staff will “retrieve” the records and bring them to you in a controlled space (often called a research room or reading room). This space is so well-monitored that before entering you’ll need to register as a researcher and agree to abide by a set of rules.

Onsite reference staff can help you to

  • Interpret general features of common types of records.
  • Access and properly handle archival records.

All these steps to gain access can make you feel as though you’re simply encountering obstacles. It might help to think of controlled access as pro-access: a little inconvenience now helps to ensure records are as available to future generations as they are to you.

The closest you might come to a self-service model in the archival world happens when you’re using copies of records that archives staff have made available online. Since you can look at this material at any time, day or night, you might naturally think of this access as “easier.” It’s important to know, however, that bringing material to you in this way – with all its context and descriptions attached – requires a lot of labour that you can’t see. So while it’s true that the internet is changing the way we provide reference service for some records, nevertheless the majority of the world’s archival resources remain undigitized.

What archivists need you to know about reference

Here are some broad truths about the realities of archival research. From these points flow some general do’s and don’ts for approaching an archives. First let’s look at what we’d really like you to know.

Archival institutions differ in what they hold and how they operate

Archival institutions are as unique as the records they hold (and the people who created those records). Yes, archival institutions share many practices (this blog has outlined widespread professional standards that unite archivists in a worldwide community). Archival uniqueness however, does mean that each institution specializes in particular topics. You’ll need to approach an institution that collects material on the topic you’re researching (though don’t worry about making a mistake – staff are generally glad to help you figure out a more appropriate institution to contact).

Archives also differ widely in the scope of their facilities and staffing. A provincial or national archives with hundreds of varied staff and hanger-size storage will operate very differently from a one-person shop with a small room of records. And it’s safe to say that regardless of size many archives are sparsely staffed – there is always more work to do than archivists to do it.

What does this mean for you?

  • Public hours vary enormously among archives.
  • Some archives provide services – such photo printing, lunch rooms, or even an online catalogue – that others can’t.
  • Some archives maintain restrictions that others don’t (such as bans on photography).
  • Archives need varying lead times for retrievals.

Work with each archives as you find it and resist the temptation to say, “But Archives X lets me do Y.” Above all, investigate and contact an archives before you travel there: their website is a good start. Find out not only what they have that might help you, but when they’re open, what to expect when you arrive, and what you might need to bring with you.

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