Rethinking Access And Descriptive Practice

Mark A. Matienzo

American Institute of Physics


Rodney Dangerfield
It should come as no surprise to the archival community that we are under increased pressure from many sources to deliver more while relying on less. We are expected to improve access to our collections, fight backlogs, perform outreach, and [...] as the world learns to expect information at its fingertips. All the while, we are forced to work with less. We are pushed to work miracles while outgoing staff are not replaced and while we are under constant competition for funding and the respect that we deserve. We, of course, know that our jobs should not be thankless.

What Do Our Users Expect?

As we struggle with these external pressures, we must still defer to our users. We know that they are looking for information quickly, and the conventional wisdom is that they will often turn to Google first. In both libraries and archives, this has lead to the belief that we should aim to make our resources "Google-like" if not "Googleable" themselves. The response to this has been extremely varied; you will often find just as many professionals decrying this strategy as those who support it.
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However, the Google model and metaphor is not the only interface that our potential users are accustomed to use. This is a screenshot of iTunes, Apple's program for playing and managing collections of music. A search box, which you can see in the upper left hand corner of the screenshot, allows the user to search an iTunes library incrementally - that is, as the user types, the list of songs automatically reduces to those that contain the user's search in the metadata. However, in addition to incremental search, iTunes allows you to view the shared music libraries of other people on the same network as you. It relies on a number of simple protocols to allow for nearly-automatic discovery of other people's music collections. Why can't we make delivery and discovery of information objects and cultural heritage resources just as simple? I must admit that this thought experiment was first proposed by my colleague Dan Chudnov at the Library of Congress. For further analyses I direct you to his website at

Are The Inmates Running The Asylum?

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
So, are the inmates running the asylum? In some senses, yes. We must ensure that our discovery and delivery systems are intutive enough to promote access to our collections. Obviously, this is complicated by the wide variety of potential users, especially those who stumble upon our resources via Google. However, though some of those inmates may not know why they're there, we must also remember there are those who intentionally committed themselves. If the inmates are running the asylum, though, we must therefore recognize that no amount of therapy or medication will change them. We must adapt to our users.

The Problem

Minor Threat - Out of Step
There are number of related underlying problems that make these pressures hard to address. The history of our profession is a varied one, with roots in business, government, manuscript and rare book librarianship, and the academic study of history. Similarly, the origins of our nation's repositories are just as diverse. While nonetheless an asset, these varied roots lead to competing professional priorities. Secondly, as a profession, we often emphasize our differences with librarians and museums. The phrase "But we're not librarians!" perhaps one of the most overused exclamations by archivists. Finally, sources of funding often reward innovation. While this is positive, such innovation only takes place on a small scale - often not beyond an institutional level. Funding for projects that do things differently leads to further fragmentation of our profession.

Back to Normal?

How do we begin to address these inconsistencies? We know that many of our tools - standards, technology, and so on - are insufficient. Coming together based upon our professional identity is not enough. Our flock doesn't have a shepherd.

Don't Mourn, Organize:
One Big Archives

One Big Union
I believe the solution is conceptually straightforward. Again, I take my cue from Dan Chudnov. I believe that we need to think collectively of our collections, our repositories and profession as One Big Archives. In one sense, improved discovery and delivery systems that allow us to search across multiple collections and repositories would enable users to survey archival resources very quickly. In another sense, One Big Archives can be thought of as a way to unify the profession so that we can define and then satisfy our needs. Instead of focusing on how our needs differ either on an institutional or a professional level, we must work together for the greater good to address our needs on a wide scale. We must develop shared processes and workflows, and we must promote exchangeability of our expertise across the profession and between institutions. The time is ripe for us to make our demands.

Changing The Landscape

Nation of Ulysses
In the United States, these changes will not come from national infrastructure as they did in countries such as Canada. Therefore, this requires us to unlearn the American archival mindset to a certain extent. There are plenty of opportunities to rethink our archival functions. An example that has both provoked discussion and receiveed considerable support throughout our community is Meissner and Greene's "More Product/Less Process" approach to processing. We should, therefore, take the risks to reevaluate other aspects of the archival enterprise thoroughly. As we do this we can begin to identify our changing needs and shape them into platforms of demands. We must not remain idle and lose these potential opportunities.

Things to Consider

Our panelists will begin to address these questions and more. Following the presentation, we will open up the floor for discussion - between the panel and the audience, and within the audience as well. I am now pleased to introduce our speakers. For the past two years Amelia Abreu worked for the University of Houston as a Special Collections archivist and history bibliographer. In the fall she will begin the PhD program at the ISchool at University of Washington. Meredith Ferguson a MISt candidate in Archival Studies at the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto and works as a contract archivist at the Scotiabank Group Archives and Fine Art Collection. Merrilee Profitt is a program officer in RLG Programs, part of OCLC Programs and Research. She has worked with the digital library, archives, and special collections community. Unfortunately, Merrilee could not attend this year's SAA conference, so her paper will be presented by Jennifer Schaffner, also of OCLC Programs and Research.

Rethinking Access And Descriptive Practice