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Cardigan Continuum North West

September 12, 2012

We have always been aware of the London-centric nature of this group, so we are delighted that a sister group will start soon in the North West. Anyone interested in attending its first meeting should toddle along to  The New Continental in Preston on Wednesday 26 September from 6pm for a 6.30pm start. The article under discussion will be  AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise

The London group has already met face to face to discuss this text and the following write-up (thanks again, Nicole) gives a flavour of the discussion….

Most of us felt that the article was written like a shortened doctoral thesis and could have been much better presented. The introductory parts of the article appeared too long and the literature review was not seen as that interesting as it also hardly contained any archival studies on user experiences. We all noted the very American way of seeing archives with a close link to libraries and special collections that is not often found in the UK.

Although most supported the overall conclusions of the article that various types of knowledge are needed to successfully discover and work with primary sources, we also felt that much of this depends on context (ah, that archival favourite), i.e. how well the archivist knows the collection, how well the researcher knows how to frame questions and how to use archives etc. Many could identify with the feeling of some of the researchers described in the article that in archives there is often an expectation that users know how the archive works and how to interpret finding aids – that there is some sort of superior atmosphere that might prevent ‘beginners’ from seeking help from the archivist. From that we moved on to the question of whether it really is archivists’ job to provide basic archival education (given the otherwise large workload they have already). Most of those present at the meeting felt that they would love to provide training to users but often lack time, resources or training to do so. It was mentioned that some university archivists actually provide that kind of training to history, arts or architecture students. It was also felt that some business or private archives do not get that many researchers to justify any forays in basic archival education. We were a bit split on the question of whether there was too much specialised language in archives: We thought that there was some professional language that could be explained better or avoided (but how do you describe ‘finding aid’ in easier terms?) but that users should also make an effort to investigate an archive or archives as a whole better before they visited one. This brought us to think about whether a basic archival toolkit for users could be established by an institution such as TNA that other archives could link to on their websites to explain basic terms and processes to the archival beginner. If they exist already, we apologise as we could not think of any and would welcome a link to those treasures.

Hopefully that will give those going to the North West meeting some ideas, and further ideas will be forthcoming from the Twitter chat about this article, which will be held on 24th September at 8pm. Please post any questions below and follow the hashtag #cardcont to see how the discussion pans out.


From → North West

  1. I am sorry i will not be able to make the meeting on the 26th. I would be interested if the group is able to discuss the user experience associated with the release of the Hillsborough papers. I think this is a seminal event in UK archival history and how it is handled, from a user perspective, will have a large impact on how Archives are seen and supported in the long term. To be sure, that statement is open to debate, but how users are educated to the archives will form a key part of how and why people visit and return.

  2. It’s a pity I couldn’t make the London meeting, partly because it was my suggestion to inflict the article on the rest of you, and partly because I get the sense that I liked it more than most who did go to the face-to-face meeting.

    I do agree that it might have been better presented. For instance, it was a bit repetitive in places, and made some repeated assertions that it took a while to justify (e.g. “unstructured problems and ill-defined solutions are the norm” was stated a couple of times as fact before it was actually discussed). I think that the comment about not citing much literature on archival user experience is rather unfair, though: part of the authors’ justification for doing their study was that they perceived a dearth of research into archival user education (and has much progress been made since 2003)?

    The thing that I like best about the article is that the division of expertise into three types of knowledge and skills (i.e. knowing your subject, knowing how to understand the record that you’re looking at, and knowing how to cope in an archival environment) is something that I and other colleagues have found to be genuinely useful.

    It strikes me that helping users to develop the basics of ‘archival intelligence’ is really the job of archivists. This is partly because nobody else can do it, partly because it’s good customer service to help people to help themselves (I think this comes under ‘managing expectations’), and partly (although perhaps I feel this way because my job is weighted towards user services) because it’s a better use of the archivist’s time to teach users to understand the system and shift for themselves than do lots of hand-holding. (Perhaps this is another application of the one-to-many principle?)

    Incidentally, quite a while ago, TNA did actually produce some short videos aimed at introducing complete beginners to the basics of a TNA-specific form of certain aspects of archival intelligence: Inevitably, these concentrate on procedures and strategies above theory or skills.

  3. The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library did an introductory website on archives and records management aimed at the general reader –

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