Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Role of the Reference Archivist, or, Do you have any information on [your ancestor here]?

We have been happily processing away in new and legacy (unprocessed) collections, adding donated materials, (and, you know me) sleeving photographs. This sort of physical and intellectual work of making information accessible is what makes many archivists and librarians happy and contented on a regular basis.

The other activity that make many archivists and librarians happy and contented on a regular basis is putting researchers together with that accessible information.

Bad days are often created from a clash of these two driving forces, when you get one call--or several, or just the one that finally makes you stop and take stock--from a researcher who isn't interested in finding about what collections you might have pertaining to their question. They aren't even interested in finding out about other repositories that might have the information, if you don't. They really, fundamentally, just want to speak into the phone, or write up the email, and have results come back to them in the form of a Google set.

What is the reference archivist to do? Charge for research time? Perhaps, but that has always seemed a bit too discriminatory for me--sticks in the craw a bit, as it were. Guide the researcher to sources and then just let go, watch them walk away uninterested? Or, suggest to the processing archivist that what you really need is a name index to every collection in the repository? (Pity the lone arranger who winds up having this conversation with herself!)

When researchers contact you with a single piece of information--a name, usually--and hope or expect you to weave something concrete out of it, seemingly effortlessly (or, at least with no effort on their part), is it fair to expect them, in turn, to really understand what it is they're asking? In this day and age, when the ease and success of Google searching contributes to the need for instant gratification and when electronic information literacy begins to replace print information literacy--can we really expect all patrons to understand what an archives is, what it does, how it works?

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