Disappearing reference specialists?

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an article called “At Library of Congress, changes are afoot in technology as well as physical space.” In terms of physical space, they’re condensing reading rooms and muddling the distinction between reference and research. Last year, in one of my grad school classes, someone brought up the notion that in five years, reference librarians may no longer exist. Instead, since the general public believes that everything important is online, they don’t tend to physically go to libraries or consult reference specialists. Online exhibits are taking the place of the reading room experience, and Google is the new reference librarian.

For a national institution like the Library of Congress, their mission instead is to get the information out there to people who can’t visit in person. Great! But the public expects instant results, and that is not feasible in every situation. During my time volunteering at NARA, I spoke with visitors on a regular basis who thought they could just type their name into one of our research computers and generate a list of all the governmental documents in which they appear. When I told them about the process for research–getting a reader card, meeting with a reference specialist, requesting boxes of records to be pulled at special times of the day–they were floored. They were only here in D.C. for the day, darn it, and they figured they would just pop into the National Archives to do some genealogical research!

So obviously, as information professionals, it is our job to get the information to the people. But it is also our job to educate the public just how the processes work, and if they want the best assistance, they need to consult with reference specialists. Institutions with archives full of juicy primary sources may not have the money to upgrade their websites, let alone digitize their collections. It is best to talk to a person, not a computer conglomerate search engine, to see just what is there. Instant results are not always possible. But good results? That takes some time and expertise.



As a new archives professional, I am a fan of Kate Theimer’s blog, ArchivesNext. A friend sent me a link to Kate’s recent post about the “OverlyHonestArchivist” hashtag that made its Twitter appearance last week. A few favorites of mine include:

  • Actually you CAN find it all with Google Search, but we’re not going to tell you the special keyword to use
  • We actually have digitized EVERYTHING and could totally make it available on the web tomorrow. Just don’t want to.
  • I’ve had nightmares about being squished in the compact shelving.
  • I detest “National Treasure.”
  • If you pronounce Archivist ‘archive-ist’ I judge you and find you wanting
  • We create elaborate and detailed finding aids for collections we know deep in our hearts will never be requested
  • No living person has read the entire OAIS standard.
  • All of the pictures on my computer are in a folder called “pics”
  • When I wear white gloves I pretend I’m a character on Downton Abbey

While I’m not personally on Twitter, I do enjoy a good meme and I hope that more creative [and overly honest] archivists get into the spirit of this one.

MARAC – Fall 2012 Conference

I just spent the last three days in Richmond, VA, for MARAC’s Fall 2012 Conference, held at the Omni Richmond Hotel. It was an enlightening experience where I was able to attend workshops, meet veteran archivists, and catch up with former colleagues and graduate students. Additionally, I took advantage of the various tours provided during the conference, including a behind-the-scenes tour of the Library of Virginia and a special showing of the Virginia State Capitol building.

The keynote speaker on Friday, Christy Coleman from the American Civil War Center, gave an enthusiastic – and effective – address on the necessity for archivists to go out and advocate for their institutions [and positions] before it is too late. Her ideas about getting one’s board of trustees actively involved in the both the fundraising and promotion processes required for archives to remain relevant to legislators and budget-makers who think that everything “important” should be digital. The notion of boards having to meet a percentage of the yearly fundraising goal seemed foreign to many of the archivists in the room, but I think that Ms. Coleman’s speech brought this issue to the forefront and motivated the members to make the first steps toward improved advocacy for our profession.

I went to sessions on project management, balancing privacy with access, the efforts of local historical organizations to bring attention to the War of 1812 [or, “The Forgotten War”], and using archival skills outside the archives. I chatted with staff from the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, the University of Maryland, NARA, the Library of Congress, and representatives from other various important mid-Atlantic organizations and universities. Overall, it was a fantastic experience in a beautiful historic city, and I definitely plan on attending future conferences through MARAC!

The conference brochure can be viewed here: http://www.marac.info/assets/documents/marac_fall_2012onferenceprogram.pdf