Reference Archivists

By October 1, 2013

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.

Article filed under From the Archives


  1. One of my ongoing interests is in the Mormon, uh, “art”work Corianton, and its evolution from short story to Utah stage play to Broadway show to motion picture. One research problem concerned how widely the movie had been shown — a film archivist responsible for restoring the only copy, relying on statements of the producers’ descendants, insisted that it had been shown only to investors and had never been released for public viewing. I knew that wasn’t right because I had already found advertisements and reviews proving that the public had seen it — but I wanted to know how widely it had been distributed.

    I found indications that there were lawsuits over the movie and thought records of those suits might answer my question. So here is where your types of archival knowledge come in:

    Having squandered 20 years in law offices, I understood how the courts worked, what records were created and how a suit moved through the system. I knew what kinds of information were likely to be in those records, and legal jargon didn’t pose any barrier. All that is, I think, according to the OP, a kind of domain knowledge, coupled with artifactual literacy.

    I also knew how to identify the repository — Utah State Archives — where surviving court records should be housed — but at that time I hadn’t used those archives much, and relied on the staff to help me understand (through their interaction knowledge) the arrangement of their holdings (collection knowledge) in order to find the suits — ten, count ’em ten — relevant to my question. I found the answer … and a lot more that I hadn’t even known to ask about at that point.

    It’s very useful to me for archivists to question what I’m looking for, not merely what record I want to see — sometimes they realize that my requested record won’t answer my question, but some other document might. I rely on them to know their holdings and be able to suggest relevant records I wouldn’t know to ask for specifically. It’s also very useful when archivists understand how their collections were created (who made this record? and why?) which helps me understand why certain facts are recorded while others are not.

    Hurrah for archivists! (and apologies for a long comment, but you did ask for stories …)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  2. Ardis,

    Reference archivist probably give a sigh of relief when they see you walk up to the desk. Thanks for the perfect example of how archivists and researchers can tackle a research problem together to recover gems in the archives.

    Comment by Robin — October 1, 2013 @ 9:50 am

  3. This is really interesting, Robin (and I assume it is infinitely more interesting to you than just about anyone else I know). I’ll simply offer that my most productive research has always come as a result of collaboration with archivists, and that the best archivists have always possessed some combination of the three categories outlined above.

    I wonder if you could share with us how your training as both a historian (MA in history, ongoing PhD in history) and librarian/archivist (MLIS) prepared you in each category. I’m admittedly not very familiar with a typical MLIS degree and its requirements/curriculum.

    Comment by Christopher — October 1, 2013 @ 10:00 am

  4. This is really interesting, and it’s helpful to have the theories of archive reference knowledge spelled out in this level of detail.

    As an occasional user of a variety of archives, all of these points have been important in my experiences, and I’ve seen many good and bad examples of each. For what it’s worth, many of the bad examples have been at the Church History Library, including one across-the-board fail in research knowledge, interaction knowledge, and collection knowledge that I saw take place a couple of years ago between someone behind the reference desk, not a missionary, and another visitor to the library. (I actually wrote a description for this comment, but it got too long to post.)

    Many of the good examples, on the other hand, have been at BYU Special Collections. I’ve mostly interacted with student employees, and they’ve been uniformly helpful in explaining archival policies in a straightforward manner, suggesting additional materials, and looking up related items.

    Comment by Amy T — October 1, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

  5. I never really use archives and I’m kind of jealous of people that do. It sounds like (maddening, frustrating, great) fun.

    Comment by Saskia — October 1, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

  6. Chris,

    My MLIS training was both theoretical and practical. Classes ranged from archival outreach to cataloging and description of manuscripts. It comes as no surprise that history and archives are closely related, but archival training is also about the creation of records. I think a careful look at the history of how societies assembled, stored, and used their records proves to be an important cultural study. And a better understanding of records also allows me, as a historian, to better use that source responsibly.

    Amy T: There are good and bad examples everywhere, but hopefully the good outweigh the bad. I would suggest sending a note to a repository where you have a bad (and a good) experience. Reference archivists have bad days and extra training in areas where they might not be proficient should be a goal. Repositories are normally open to useful feedback like that.

    Saskia: “It sounds like (maddening, frustrating, great) fun.” It is all of those quite frequently.

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Comment by Robin — October 1, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

  7. Thanks for your suggestion, Robin. I just took a few minutes and sent several notes of appreciation to individuals and institutions that have been helpful recently, including BYU Special Collections.

    It’s interesting to wonder about whether the good outweighs the bad at the CHL. In my experience, the answer is just barely, for the occasional or one-time patron. I started to describe what I’ve seen and experienced there, but once again the comment got too long, so here’s the brief version, and it’s still long enough that I’ll break it into two comments so it doesn’t go into moderation.

    The major problem I’ve experienced every time is that the staff does not clearly explain archive-specific policies and procedures. During my latest visit, it was the fourth archives I’d visited that week and I hadn’t been at the CHL for two years, so I requested a review of the procedures, but the information given was so incomplete that it caused problems throughout the day.

    Also, unknown patrons not in professional dress seem to be treated with hostility. I only noticed this accidentally, coming once in jeans and on a subsequent visit dressed to attend the temple afterwards. Since noticing it the first time, I’ve always dressed up to come to the archives, but I’ve seen the hostility directed toward other patrons.

    In one case, the unprofessional treatment of a patron ruled out the CHL as the recipient of a major Mormon-related collection. I’ll explain.

    I visited the library briefly a couple of years ago with my father. He is an influential genealogy blogger and successful lawyer. He was on vacation and was dressed in jeans. His detailed questions about a daguerreotype in the collection and his request for an idea of who would be able to help him were all rudely dismissed and he was sternly rebuked for having his cell phone go off while talking to the librarian. (Was the librarian having a bad day? How would I know? It was a weird experience.)

    Comment by Amy T — October 2, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  8. (Part 2)

    About a year later, my father and I were discussing the donation of a 6000+ item 19th and early 20th century photography collection from a Mormon pioneer family, plus a number of missionary journals. My father was concerned that people should have good access to the collection, and he preferred to give the items to an organization that would treat patrons in a professional manner. Due to his experience the year before, he didn’t even consider the CHL. He donated the collection this past week to the University of Arizona, complete with a digital copy of each print, negative, glass plate, or journal.

    As to why I haven’t contacted the CHL about repeated problems? There could be several factors:

    1) We’re conditioned in contemporary American society to be used to bad customer service. It’s a surprise to find it at the CHL, but it’s not out of our regular, everyday experiences.

    2) We’re trained in the Church not to complain and told specifically that it’s bad to send complaints higher up. And the CHL is more or less the Church to many of us.

    3) As you said, someone could just be having a bad day. But after three day-long visits over the past four years, the problems seem very consistent. (Note that I’m talking about the experience of a first-time or very occasional patron.)

    4) And finally, who would I send a note to? I’ve been doing archival work for a couple of decades now, and have been very involved in Mormon and Utah research for the last few years. I just checked four other similar institutions and immediately found the contact information for the people in charge, but it would be more work for me to figure out who to contact at the CHL than it would be worth.

    Comment by Amy T — October 2, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  9. Amy T.

    Thanks so much for the comments. I think you perfectly illustrate the critical need for continued training for reference archivists. We certainly like to give people and (when we’re particularly charitable) organizations the benefit of the doubt. But as you say, a troubling pattern makes one doubt the initial charitable thoughts. Good people skills should really top the list of attributes anyone involved with public services, but we all know that isn’t always the case.

    Comment by Robin — October 2, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

  10. I have certainly had interesting archival experiences, as I had the opportunity to visit archives in the United States, Senegal, and France. I would certainly say that the contextual knowledge of the documents is important to me as a historian but I often feel like I had to piece together the context of the sources on my own or by searching for those who submitted the sources (if alive, considering that I study a more recent era).

    I find the actual relationships between archivists and scholars fascinating as well as studies of reading archives along vs. against the grain. I find it unfortunate in my experiences of sensing a fear and intimidation with the archivist, as if I worried I had to please him/her so that they would simply provide me what I need in a timely fashion. I have not really met an archivist who really seemed to care about my research and offer insights. I hope this will change as I pursue my research, but especially in archives outside the U.S. I was new to the archival culture of the area and just trying to make it in and get what I traveled so far to see and study. I imagine and look forward to new archival experiences ahead, as I learn and work out archival cultures elsewhere (which I know differ).

    Comment by Farina — October 2, 2013 @ 11:01 pm

  11. Amy, we could have a whole discussion about the issues with CHL. I think that every time I go there, I see issues. One time a patron was crying. One time, I almost screamed at one of the archivists/reference librarians especially because she kept smiling at me while telling me bad news (or at least news I did not want to hear) and it felt like she was mocking me but I imagined that she must have been trained to smile no matter what. Again, the CHL has an archival culture. But I am not indicating that archival culture is just an excuse for particular concerns and issues.

    Comment by Farina — October 2, 2013 @ 11:14 pm

  12. The USHS is my favorite place to conduct Mormon/Utah related research. They are amazing.

    I think BYU Special Collections deserves a special shout out. The student employees and staff are always very helpful, cheerful, and willing to work around red tape issues. I think a cross training/pollination between the CHL and BYU would go a long way for both sides.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 3, 2013 @ 7:57 am

  13. I would like to note that I am a great beneficiary of the digitization and open access efforts of Church History Library, and care very much about its long-term success. Projects like the Overland Travel Database and the collaboration with allow people like me to do work that we could only dream of ten or fifteen years ago. It’s difficult to express what it’s like to to have the entire run of Der Stern available at the click of a mouse, or to be able to submit a question to “Ask a Librarian” and a few days later have a complete description of a daguerreotype in the collections, complete with pictures. And that’s not even mentioning projects like the JSPP and Revelations in Context.

    I’d never thought systematically about my experiences visiting the CHL until this post, and before that, I would have assumed that Farina’s story about a crying patron was due to someone having a bad day, but there can be an intense frustration involved in the experience. Luckily I’ve never been driven to tears, but I did have to flee the reading room once and collapse outside in peals of laughter due to the kindly ministrations of several missionaries who were trying their hardest to fix a problem with the microfilm reader.

    I’ve assumed that the problem involves the difficulties inherent in the divided ecclesiastical/professional nature of the institution and the complex mix of professional and volunteer workers, so it wouldn’t be an easy problem to solve, but it is very much worth protecting and improving the CHL so it serves the needs of the different types of people who use it, including those who can only come in occasionally.

    Comment by Amy T — October 3, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

  14. I was told last week by an archivist at a major repository, “you know you can’t use your research here in your Mormon books, right? You can’t just make transcriptions from these documents and then quote extensively from them.” The next day I went to a government repository and every single archivist there was polite, knowledgeable, helpful, and prompt.

    Comment by Alex S — October 3, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

  15. I’m a little late to this, but I really appreciate the post and the discussion. Robin, I’d be curious as to your views on how to retain these pools of extremely valuable knowledge during periods of transition. I happened to start working in the LDS archives when some of the people who are now retired still were there. There were a couple of items and ideas that I am certain I would not have found/accessed had I started today.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 3, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  16. Just a hearty amen to contextual knowledge. The sort of research I’ve been doing would be nearly impossible without it. CHL has been quite helpful I might add in providing collection knowledge. Provenance issues are often a brick wall without a willing archivist with the knowledge of the pieces in the a particular collection. One thing I wish for, which CHL and many other archives do not provide upfront in cataloging is information about the physical nature of documents (materials, size, state, etc., etc.).

    Comment by WVS — October 4, 2013 @ 10:31 pm


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