Sunday, April 14, 2013
Why All Archivists Should Take a Library Reference Class
Archivists should better understand what researchers are seeking when they write term papers or approach a library (or the Internet) to find information that serves a need in daily life. The archives has much to offer the general populace. As archivists, we should no longer view the academician as our most important patron. We must better serve a diverse populace to survive and thrive. Once upon a time, preservation was a good reason to discourage wide-ranging use of our materials. We could not keep everything safe if hundreds or thousands of people clamored to use our resources, but with digitization this is no longer the case. We must strive to see how archives can best serve most of the population's information needs.
An understanding of general library reference service has served me well in my archives career. I can easily recognize moments when my archives collections can serve as publicity tools or can be neatly related to published sources to enhance users' understanding of a subject. In my public librarian / public archivist role, there were many opportunities for me to tie primary resources to new books and popular ideas. In a school environment, I toss kids back and forth between archives, books and the Internet, explaining the difference between the media while highlighting how they mesh together.
For example, while looking through the Statistical Abstract for a math project with my daughter the other day, we noted the percentages of students who receive various levels of education. First, I knew enough to seek out that particular resource when she needed to find an example of a place that provides information in percentages. Second, It was interesting to connect the statistics I was viewing to the many school archives I have seen that list student achievement and performance markers. Understanding the creation and use of primary sources certainly made it easier to comprehend what the publishers must have been looking at or surveying to gain the mathematical information they provided us.
For another recent example I can cite working with a foreign exchange student on an exhibit about her country. The project brought to my attention that we had little published information in our library book collection about her homeland. So, I asked her to supply original photos that she had taken and to write something telling about her experiences. This will be added to our school archives. Though we lacked much published information on her country, I knew that a general cultural encyclopedia must have some basic background text, which we found and used to give some context to our display. We supplemented the primary and printed sources with maps from the Internet. I was able to show the student books that I would order from a vendor's database that I found with an easy two minute search. My knowledge of the types of resources that should be available fleshed out our exhibit, but also demonstrated to the student the wealth of information that she too could learn to navigate.
Archives and secondary sources can work together to round out a subject for our audiences. Most people do not have experience with archives, but professionals can lead them into a subject and across platforms of information by beginning with published sources. The creation of exhibits, brochures, programming, finding aids, and other archivists' activities can benefit from the inclusion of secondary sources. An archivist should know search strategies and primary reference tools to provide context to their materials in a way that is understandable to the average person. Linking primary and secondary sources rounds out the world of information, opens doors to collaboration with librarians and provides a means toward better understanding of the value of archives by new potential patrons and supporters.