The Society for American Archives month has designated October Archives Month. To celebrate, here’s a highlight of the recent SAA journal.
I was interested to read in the latest American Archivist “Archival Reference Knowledge” by Wendy M. Duff, Elizabeth Yakel, and Helen Tibbo. The article summarizes a survey given to users of archives and archivists. The report, in part, reads:
Based on our analysis of the data from the interviews and the survey, we propose a new model of Archival Reference Knowledge…[containing three] types of archival reference knowledge: research knowledge, interaction knowledge, and collection knowledge with each of these categories consisting of specific types of knowledge identified in our data analysis.
The authors explain each types of archival reference knowledge:
Research knowledge includes two types of knowledge…artifactual literacy and domain knowledge [and] research methodologies…. Artifactual literacy includes understanding how to read texts as objects, how to interpret various documentary forms, and how to make connections among various genres and genre systems extant in primary source collections. Domain knowledge pertains to the foci of collections as well as to the major themes that could be investigated through the use of the collections. Finally, research methodologies expertise enables reference archivists to assist users in identifying tactics for searching as well as decoding and making meaning from archival documents.
Providing reference services involves interaction knowledge. Reference archivists require interaction knowledge to gain an understanding of their users’ needs and to identify relevant materials to meet those needs. There are three dimensions to this: knowledge of archival institutions and practices, knowledge of archival access systems, and knowledge of people. These categories in turn consist of more specific knowledge. Institution knowledge include knowledge about archives rules and procedures that contain access, as well as knowledge of reference service policies…. Knowledge related to information retrieval includes knowledge of databases, searching techniques, structure of finding aids, and other archival representations that are part of access systems…. People knowledge relates to communication, including listening skills and techniques for building rapport, as well as understanding information-seeking behavior.
The final category of knowledge is collection knowledge, which includes knowledge of the holdings as well as contextual knowledge about those holdings. As previously noted, users and archivists both indicated that knowing about collections held in other repositories is also important. Collection knowledge is gained from working with the collection, reviewing finding aids, and access materials on the reference desk. Collection knowledge helps the reference archivist identify materials to answer reference questions or support research. Users also indicate that reference archivists should have contextual knowledge about the collection, such as knowledge about the provenance of the materials.
The authors then go on and explain how the above can improve reference knowledge within archives.
I found several interesting things about the survey itself. Eleven percent of users of archives interviewed stated that “Artifactual literacy” was an important type of knowledge archivists held, whereas only 2 percent of archivists acknowledged its importance. Again, the authors’ definition of “artifactual literacy” touches upon the understanding of the form of records, how to read these documents beyond simply reading the content of the text, or to understand the way in which to interpret documents (think map literacy). Because my research interests are all about artifactual literacy, I had myself assumed that most archivists are confronted with these types of questions all the time and recognize the importance of this knowledge. I guess not.
The most startling fact to me, however, was the discussion of what I see as squarely the purview of archivists. Nine percent of users stated that contextual knowledge of documents was important, whereas none of the archivists claimed this knowledge base was crucial. Contextual knowledge of documents—i.e. provenance, history of creation, or an understanding of the records creators—seems to be an important service archivist can offer even if users don’t inquire about it.
What about you? What crucial attributes do you need in a reference archivist? What are your success stories where archival knowledge has led you to a historical gem you wouldn’t have normally found? Share in the comments.