First Monday

Machines in the archives: Technology and the coming transformation of archival reference by Richard J. Cox and the University of Pittsburgh archives students

Technology is transforming the way in which researchers gain access to archives, not only in the choices archivists make about their uses of technology but in the portable technologies researchers bring with them to the archives. This essay reviews the implications of electronic mail, instant messaging and chat, digital reference services, Web sites, scanners, digital cameras, folksonomies, and various adaptive technologies in facilitating archival access. The new machines represent greater, even unprecedented, opportunities for archivists to support one of the main elements of their professional mission, namely, getting archival records used.


Settling the first fear: The loss of documents
Electronic mail and virtual reference
E–mail is for the old folks: What about IM and chat?
The new virtual reference
A Web presence
Scanning the archives
Click, click, click: Digital cameras in archives
Archival folksonomies
Adaptive technologies: Reaching and empowering new researchers




Every archivist knows that technology is part of their daily lives. Like so many others, archivists drive to work, use cell phones, run photocopiers, read and respond to electronic mail, cook meals, and edit with a pen or pencil. Yet, technology is often seen to be a challenge in their professional duties, as they wrestle with ways to preserve digital texts and, increasingly, see the quiet solemnity of their reading rooms disturbed by barrages of electronic mail inquiries and the use by visiting researchers of digital cameras and portable scanners. Life for the archivist is different than it was a mere decade or two ago and, it seems, working with researchers has irrevocably been transformed.

Of all the technologies impacting archival work the greatest potential challenges and changes have come from the development and spread of the personal computer. Computerized databases replace the need to go through a hand–written catalog or finding aid with the ease of a keyword search, although there are limitations with keyword searching. Digital archives allow wider access to archival materials but pose new challenges for preservation in addition to technological challenges associated with the display on computer monitors of archival materials. And while electronic mail allows persons geographically distant to exchange letters nearly instantaneously, it at the same time creates vast new challenges for the need to archive and preserve electronic mail these messages. A decade ago, archivists had other worries about the then new virtual world they were drifting into. Now, archival managers have to guard against remote users being treated as second–class users and given second–class service (Cross, 1997).

Twenty years ago, when the novice archivist first stepped into the reading room of an archival repository, she was met with a large wooden cabinet called “the catalog” that contained cards arranged by the names of records creators and subject headings. Researchers would finger through the cards to discover what collections might meet their needs. There was also a bookcase filled with binders of finding aids and inventories. The catalog and binders were often the main tools any researcher would consult to make their request for research materials. At the head of the room was a reference desk that was staffed with archivists usually looking through papers, perhaps reviewing new finding aids or reading requests for research, which were all received through the postal service. Behind the reference desk were shelves of binders containing subject bibliographies, shelf lists and stacks of forms to be filled out by patrons for researcher cards, photocopy requests, photograph reproduction requests and call slips. In front of the reference desk were the tables where researchers sat in clear sight of the archivists. Here, some researchers anxiously waited for materials to be retrieved out of the stacks and others pored over documents that were found neatly arranged in acid–free folders and boxes.

Today, the scene may be a little different when walking into a reading room. The old wooden card catalog cabinet is probably still there, but it is dusty because no one uses it any longer. The catalog has been automated and is accessed at one of the many computers that dot the reference room, or it is accessed from the institution’s Web page using the researcher’s personal computer at their home or office. Some researchers are surprised to discover that the archivists don’t even update the old card catalog. At the reference desk you will usually find archivists reading research requests through e–mail messages. It is now a rare occasion to receive requests by snail mail. The noise of keystrokes fills the room, much to the dissatisfaction of some academic researchers (Phelps, 2007). These same researchers might also be placing “photocopying markers” between documents in a folder as an indication to the archival staff of which individual documents they want copied. The photocopies will enable the researchers to use the documents at their home or office when they are writing about their current research project. At the table next to these researchers is a graduate student. The graduate student is busy photographing several documents with a digital camera, enabling him to upload the images of the documents to a personal computer — perhaps to the laptop already sitting on the table. Just like the other researchers, the graduate student will use the digital images of the documents to complete a current research project.

The digital era tools have not just begun to transform how we do research with archival sources, but they have also made us much more self–reflective about the meaning of archives. With the advent of the digital age, representatives from a variety of disciplines are increasingly interested in the role of archives, realizing the remarkable implications for the creation and shaping of our public and private memories. These changes will not only affect historical scholarship but society as a whole. The public recognizes that the transition between the past and the present is no longer as distinct as it had been during the era of print and other analog media, thus moving archival responsibilities much closer to our contemporary transactions. Marlene Manoff examines recent interdisciplinary archival discourse and finds that it is “fueled by a shared preoccupation with the function and fate of the historical and scholarly record.” She notes, “Researchers are proclaiming the centrality of the archive to both the scholarly enterprise and the existence of democratic society” [1]. What’s more, Mike Featherstone observes that digital technologies not only affect the academic and cultural production but also the reception of those products: “If writing increasingly becomes a more dynamic network of visual and verbal symbols, then the resultant multi– or hypermedia mixture of alphabetic, iconic and auditory information will not only help to fulfill one of the long standing dreams of the visual arts with the interchangeability of forms through digitalization, but also will alter the nature of intellectual and academic production and reception” [2].

Contending with electronic records (that is, records born that way) and the various new digital means by which researchers can gain access to archival records have made archivists much more introspective about their future, especially in terms of archival reference. With the continuing advancement of digital and technological innovation, archivists are having to deal with a myriad of new and, at times, muddled issues. The corresponding implications of the technological “progress” within archives are often far–reaching and extensive. Years ago, Hugh Taylor (2003, a volume collecting his writings form the 1960s into the 1990s) projected what we might be facing in a new networked age, arguing that archivists needed to become more oriented to the user and learn to adapt new technologies to meet researcher needs. Taylor’s earlier insights imply that archivists will be facing major changes in their most basic work and applications, especially in their reference services.

Traditional reference activities are in a state of change, and perhaps at a pace of change greater than what many archivists realize. New technologies lure in archivists with the possibilities they offer while making them fearful of the added risks and responsibilities such technologies create. Reference archivists now use e–mail instead of the postal service to respond to patron questions, for example, but this added speed and efficiency means patrons will have increased expectations of receiving an equally rapid answer to their problems. As more and more content goes up on the Web, users of archives will soon anticipate finding digital samples, if not fully digitized archival collections, online. While this may seem ideal from a user’s perspective, archivists will need to concern themselves with how to preserve this electronic content. All of these challenges have both positive and negative implications.

The nature of digital documents and services creates a much more fluid society with quite different expectations about how it might use archival materials. Consequently, once archivists learned to capture and archive electronic records, they are realizing that they cannot continue to offer them in static, analog form. This will not only diminish but also modify the informational and contextual values of their documentary holdings. Similar observations are made across academic disciplines. In 1999, a special issue of Studies in Literary Imagination, a biannual scholarly journal focusing on special topics in literature, was dedicated to the theme of “the poetics of the archive.” In their introduction, Paul Voss and Marta Werner observe, “On the cusp of the twenty–first century — now — we speak of an ex–static archive, of an archive not assembled behind stone walls but suspended in a liquid element behind a luminous screen; the archive becomes a virtual repository of knowledge without visible limits, an archive in which the material now becomes immaterial.” The authors conclude that this change “has altered in still unimaginable ways our relationship to the archive” [3].

Some archivists have cautioned their colleagues to proceed carefully. As Leon J. Stout, the former president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), states, “Technology is not an end in itself, although it is sometimes amazingly seductive. It is a tool, yes, it’s the hammer; and now it’s also the nail and even the wood, but the house we build is still for the history that we need, Cyberarchivist or not” [4]. However, Stout is not implying that archivists should neglect to mull over just what these new technologies might mean for their work. This essay is the result of such ruminating. It is the result of a student writing assignment in a course I taught entitled Archival Access, Advocacy, and Ethics in the Spring Term 2007, requiring the students to focus on some aspect of the archival reference function being transformed or challenged by new technologies. Each student was allowed to select any technology (for example, the Web, PDAs, or digital cameras) of interest to them and consider the implications for how archivists provide access to the records holdings under their care. The result of their investigations and reflections led to this essay considering a range of changes impacting the use of archival materials.



Settling the first fear: The loss of documents

Will the shift of emphasis to digital records cause an irreparable harm to caring for traditional documentary sources? Some of this concern emanates from decisions being made by archivists that may weaken any emphasis on the paper–based manuscript collections [5], but the greater concerns may be driven by fears that new digital processes will lead to a curtailment in the creation of certain kinds of personal papers, such as correspondence and diaries, now replaced by e–mail and blogs [6]. Can archivists afford to work both in building a presence on the Web and contend with such new digitally–born materials? Many archivists, perhaps because of their limited resources, have tended to consider such issues as an either–or proposition.

While archivists strive to create a presence on the Web and use it in innovative ways, other challenges emerge. As we worry about bringing older records to the digital platform, what about the ones already on the ever–changing Web? With all of that information out there waiting to be collected and saved, who is in charge of making sure it is archived? [7]. The scope of administering a virtual archives and reference service can be daunting, as just one example reveals. E–mail can be a boon to researchers, but it can also be a difficulty for archivists who must deal with multiple forms of electronic records such as e–mail, instant messaging, and online documents. The need to keep these records and to be able to search and research them has only grown in importance since various corporate and government scandals such as Enron (Miller, 2006). While computers allow vast deposits of records to be easily searched, they must also be constantly updated. The spread of computers also produces an equally vast number of electronic documents, which must be archived, indexed and preserved. Computers, if nothing else, will ensure the need for trained archivists to archive their products (at least that is the positive view one can take).

Archivists have been fretting about the potential loss of digital records — due to technological obsolescence, limited resources, and lack of technical expertise — for at least three decades. Ironically, the same technical advancements have led to potential solutions in another form of archival loss, the theft of records from archives. Stealing from archival collections is nothing new. Examples recur throughout history, a famous case being the theft of rare manuscripts from the Library of Congress by two library employees in 1896 and 1897 (Purcell, 1999). Though the Library of Congress case was motivated first by curiosity and then by profit–seeking, a more recent example — the removal of classified documents from the National Archives and Records Administration in 2003 by former National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, appears to have been motivated by the perpetrator’s desire for convenience coupled with considerable arrogance and an opportunistic willingness to take advantage of a lax security system. Numerous possibilities exist for strengthening security in archival repositories, some technical in nature and others procedural (Martin, 2000).

Examining the Berger case allows us to see that the digital technologies are not only threatening the preservation of our documentary heritage, the traditional perspective of many archivists, but that they are enabling tools for protecting archival sources held in our repositories. Berger made three visits to the National Archives to review classified Clinton–era presidential materials in connection with the activities of the 9/11 Commission before which he was to testify (National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Inspector General, 2005). During his visits, he aroused the suspicion of NARA staff, and, in October 2003, he was confronted about his illegal removal of classified material from the Archives (Harris and Schmidt, 2004). Berger eventually acknowledged his deliberate removal of specific documents and volunteered that he had also removed 40 to 50 pages of handwritten notes he had taken at the time of his visit and which, according to federal rules, were considered classified information that should not have been removed from the Archives.

In April 2005, Berger accepted a plea bargain and was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material (Sherman, 2005). He was fined US$50,000, ordered to perform 100 hours of community service, and deprived of his security clearance for three years (Fund, 2007). A report prepared by the Office of the Inspector General of NARA revealed lapses in NARA security ranging from Berger being left alone with classified records to not being searched as he left the Archives facility. The Inspector General’s report makes no mention of any video surveillance, or any other modern digital technologies which could be used for surveillance, in use in the office in which Berger reviewed Archives documents.

If NARA had employed low–cost, easy–to–use network camera technology, this federal agency could have provided Berger with the courtesy of complete auditory privacy while he made phone calls, for example, still keeping him under 360–degree video surveillance. Such surveillance might have identified problems earlier or at least provided a means for independently assessing Berger’s claims that his actions were limited to only five documents. For an estimated US$3,000 to US$5,000, NARA could have configured a private office with multiple miniature pinhole–type wired or wireless network cameras. Such cameras would have been available on demand to record video signals and send them over an existing network connection to a central server. Video images could have been actively monitored by staff or analyzed by automated real–time software tools. Ten or more cameras would have allowed for high and low positioning on all four sides of the room to simultaneously record close–up and wide angle views from multiple angles. Using such a system, NARA could have monitored Berger’s facial expressions and body movements. Based on existing systems, it’s easy to imagine software that could have flagged certain types of suspicious movements such as bending over, shoe tying, or reaching into pockets.

None of these concerns with physical theft may be as significant if the nature of archival research shifts from in–person visits and sojourns in reference rooms to an online experience. Nevertheless, the enhancement of these various technologies can be interpreted to represent both the causes and solutions of such security issues. Surveillance cameras have been around for many years, but since the 1990s their use has skyrocketed in the U.S. and elsewhere — most notably in the U.K. (Barron, 2006; Davies, 1999; William and Webster, 1996). In recent years a convergence has occurred — now very well underway — between traditional closed circuit TV surveillance cameras and computer technology, resulting in increasingly cheap and increasingly powerful networked–digital video systems (Selingo, 2003). Whereas in the past, individual cameras recorded analog video imagery directly onto videotape storage, network cameras record digitally and transmit the recorded information via cable or wirelessly to a network server. This makes storage practically infinite while the retrieval of particular video sequences is greatly aided by the digital time–stamping of each individual video frame.

Digital video cameras, once high–end electronic items, have become very inexpensive. Even as prices have dropped, there have been steady advances in features and miniaturization (Milshtein, 2002). Because they are network devices following standard networking protocols, such as Ethernet and TCP/IP, the new breed of camera can be quickly, easily, and inexpensively deployed anywhere there is a network connection — be it local area or wide area/Internet, indoors or outdoors. In addition to rapid development in hardware and infrastructure, developments in software are changing the nature of surveillance through automation. Advanced software features that could be offered through a Web interface include tools for facial recognition, gait recognition, crowd behavior analysis, and interpretation of body movements (including interpretation of facial expressions) [8]. Though their use is not yet widespread, “intelligent” systems capable of analyzing body language have demonstrated high rates of accuracy.



Electronic mail and virtual reference

Archivists have spent more time worrying about how to appraise, preserve, and administer e–mail than in how to utilize it effectively for reference work. Most archivists have taken to the Internet like ducks to water, using it daily to carry out all their responsibilities and to read and post to professional discussion lists propagating like rabbits. Archivists need to reflect on how everyone else using e–mail and the Internet has created vastly different expectations for how archival reference is to be conducted.

We live in a technological world. After living a life filled with and structured by the daily bombardment of e–mail, cell phones, PDAs, instant messaging or texting, the World Wide Web and the like for at least the past 10 years, it is very hard to imagine ourselves back in the “dark ages” where rotary telephones, typewriters, numerical pagers, legal pads and number 2 pencils reigned supreme as our modes of correspondence and overall communication (besides face–to–face communication). Even the basic task of typewriting has gone through a succession of significant technological innovations from its inception in the late nineteenth century, moving from old–style manual machines to electronic versions with limited memory to present–day word processing (and the latter also shows signs of migrating into new forms and variations). Yet, falling back into the black hole of past communication should not be such a major concern to archivists spiraling towards the future and the unforeseeable technological realm that will continue to impact archival work. It is a fact that all things technical affect every task archivists try to fulfill and every service we try to provide. Because of this, our researchers, patrons, and other users have a “right now” mentality about the service they expect from our repositories, especially from our reference rooms. This is especially true when it comes to reference that can be provided via the Web through Web pages, e–mail and virtual chat or instant messaging.

Electronic mail (or e–mail) is transmittable across a host network of computers, was the brainchild of a computer engineer named Ray Tomlinson. In 1971, Tomlinson — an employee of Bolt, Beranek and Newman [9] — created the first version of e–mail while experimenting with his program called SNDMSG, which allowed programmers and researchers using network computers to send messages to each other. Since 1971, e–mail (along with other electronic modes of communication that are by–products of e–mail) has become as ubiquitous as talking on the telephone and in some cases talking face–to–face. In a 1998 study on the linguistic qualities of e–mail, researcher Naomi S. Baron argues that besides being informal, conversational, persuasive in inspiring personal disclosure and, at times, emotional, e–mail is a medium that is helpful in constructing communication. Baron states, “e–mail is in many respects, an ideal tool for building or maintaining social relationships. It has much of the informality of speech, transmission and response time are minimal, and financial costs are either low or free. Moreover, e–mail can be sent and received at the convenience of the interlocutors, not bound by personal schedules or time zones, much less physical proximity” [10]. There is no doubt that any effort to build an effective “social relationship” between researchers in archives and libraries and archivists and librarians is a positive effort for everyone.

Digital reference is beginning to emerge as a more important service with every variety of other library and information service providers. As one observer comments, “Digital reference apparently is seen as an important and beneficial tool for reference work, but by no means a panacea” [11]. In a survey conducted by Joseph Janes on 648 academic and public librarians, over 75 percent of the participants had performed reference work through e–mail and were more comfortable with the medium than with chat, Web forms and videoconferencing [12]. He found that a majority of the participants also felt that using e–mail and the other technologies made reference more accessible and interesting, but also more challenging [13]. One of the more challenging points appeared to be the fact that the librarians felt digital reference was best suited for “ready reference questions,” which are basically e–mail messages that only require a quick response. However, Wendy Diamond and Barbara Pease found in their research, also conducted within academic libraries, that while ready reference questions account for 30 percent of e–mail messages sent to reference librarians, there was an almost equal amount (in this case, 25 percent) of broader research–oriented questions [14]. Janes asserts that librarians might rather have strict policies about mainly answering ready reference questions because of the “fear of answering the wrong question or simply not being able to understand the request at all” [15].

Yet, how does this attitude benefit the users to whom archivists are providing service? Kirsti Nilsen finds that because of these attitudes, incorporating technologies such as e–mail is not improving or speeding up reference service, as one might believe, but perpetuating problems that have not been resolved in face–to–face reference. In her study, Nilsen found that even though a substantial amount of users initially flock to e–mail reference for their research needs, the end results seemed to point to dissatisfaction and a high probability of not using e–mail service again for future reference needs. Nilsen speculates that reference librarians, perhaps because of the more informal medium of e–mail for responding to questions, are not being as thorough as they could be. This kind of behavior is also happening at the physical reference desk, but with less frequency. Other problems that arise come in the form of follow up or exit interview. One participant in this survey noted that they felt neglected as a user because of the lack of follow–up. Lastly, Nilsen points out an important aspect of using e–mail (and chat) as reference tools — the issue of writing versus speaking. She found that, “virtual reference requires both the library staff member and the user to type out their responses. This is time–consuming, and causes anxiety at both sides. Library staff and some patrons are concerned with correct grammar and spelling ... . Written messages provide no verbal cues and tone of voice is lost, so the writing may try to express tone in the words” (Nilsen, 2004). Attempting to get answers to questions, especially more in–depth research questions, seems to be a little vexing in virtual reference. Given that librarians have devoted considerably more attention to the reference function and that the reference process is a bit more standardized or regularized in libraries than what tends to occur in archival repositories, it should not be surprising that librarians have been more attracted to virtual reference services.

Those familiar with archival reference have been more cautious when considering the possibilities of a particular information technology and its aid to assisting researchers. Susan L. Malbin, for example, says, “Archives need to change to fit users, but achieving this will require more than merely changing some technology” [16]. Malbin notes that the archivist “undervalues the [reference] interview” and needs to re–evaluate attitudes toward reference services to improve the use of archival holdings as well as to improve the reference archivist/user relationship [17]. Ultimately good archival reference starts with truly understanding and fulfilling the individual needs of the researchers. As Mary Jo Pugh notes, e–mail has become the most prevalent form of written inquiry in the last decade [18]. Aside from being free, e–mail allows patrons to easily and quickly request information about archives’ collections. Pugh observes that the ability to develop a virtual conversation with patrons, one that may be referred back to if necessary, is another advantage of e–mail over traditional mail [19]. However, there are many issues with the reliance on e–mail in archival reference that need to be worked out. Just because the technologies seem useful and attractive does not mean that they should be used by archives and archivists.

As with most communications technologies, they bring with them both positive and negative aspects. It has been suggested, for example, that e–mail is superior to letter correspondence (what we now commonly call snail mail) because entire questions can be captured in their original state, providing archives’ staff the option to create a database for commonly asked questions. It also allows staff to create files for each client containing contact information, permitting archivists to review correspondence so as to enhance reference service in the future (K. Martin, 2001). The downside of e–mail is that the rapid transmission and ease of use has caused archives to experience an increase in the amount of inquiries they receive. With more and more researchers gaining access to archives remotely, remote correspondence will likely continue to increase and archives’ staff must come to terms with the speed with which patrons expect a response. Archival reference seems to be showing a remarkable increase in volume, and the kinds of inquiries arriving in archivists’ electronic mailboxes require more time and resources for responding (Bell, 2002). Embedded in this is a mandate for archivists to rethink their reference function. While reference archivists have made great strides to address patron preference for remote e–mail reference and continue to assess methods to improve reference interviews through e–mail in response to increased traffic due to Web site publishing, archivists have as yet failed to fully resolve the challenges presented by their success in offering remote reference services.



E–mail is for the old folks: What about IM and chat?

If archivists might be struggling with how to contend with e–mail, what about the growing popularity, especially among the younger population, of means of communication such as Instant Messaging (IM) and online chat? A newer technology, Instant Messaging, provides a means of chatting with information seekers on the Internet and has already been considered and implemented by some archives as a means of delivering an online reference service. In some cases this has been done to provide a supplementary service to an existing co–browsing service, and in others it forms the only online reference service offered. Although both IM and co–browsing products can be used to deliver an online reference service, they are different, and archives must consider providing the best combination of services for their particular patron base, evaluating the different contact methods that their patrons may want to use and the type of equipment that they want to use them on. While it might appear that a simple telephone call might be just as efficient, many individuals, especially younger people, are more comfortable with IM.

IM is a real–time online communication service between two or more people who may either exchange messages or files or join a private chat room. The installation of software is required for this method and some services support voice and video conversations. As with e–mail, IM is free and may be used as a form of internal and external communication. Aside from its instantaneous delivery, IM has the added benefit of being spam–free. Although many online users may prefer either e–mail or IM, in order to provide better service to patrons, one should not be given preference over the other. Though it will undoubtedly create more work for the reference staff due to the likely increase in the volume of inquiries, both methods should be offered by archives in order to serve and satisfy a greater number of patrons.

IM enables real–time communication between users. Before the advent of Google Talk and AOL Instant Messenger, the only digital reference service similar to this was a co–browsing program that was much too costly for the average library or archive, costing US$15,000 initially and US$6,000 each year to continue the service [20]. Now the archivist and patron can connect instantly using free software that is extremely easy to use. Archival reference staff using this service can easily assist researchers with questions by providing real–time answers and can even send a screenshot over an IM program if that would best help the user.

As with all technological innovations, there are challenges for archives if they adopt IM as a reference approach. One major potential problem with this particular type of remote reference is the risk of transferring viruses [21]. Archives should already have a firewall and up–to–date virus software on their computers, so this should not pose a great threat. Another issue surrounding this service is the fact that there is no standard IM program, and there are varying personal preferences about IM packages [22]. Although it may be a minor inconvenience for the user, an archive could make it clear on their Web site that their chat function is only supported by AOL Instant Messenger, for example, and provide users with a link to the program’s free download page. Researchers should be given a variety of options about how to contact reference archivists via the Web.

The constantly transforming and ever more powerful information technologies, such as IM, are opening up even more opportunities for providing creative access to archival records. When online chat reference was first introduced, the average computer user had to use their phone line to access the Internet. Now in the United States broadband has reached a majority of homes. Even if they still use a dial–up connection, the patron probably now has a mobile phone that they can use to call the library while they use the Internet. Others have VoIP products that they could use to call an archive while online. VoIP is now built into some co–browsing and most IM products, so increasingly computer users can simply pick up the phone to obtain assistance from the reference archivist while they are using the Internet.

At present, synchronous, real–time technologies such as chat are used less frequently and are associated with more problems. One of the problems with these synchronous systems stems directly from their real–time nature. On the face of it, it would seem that any archivist who can field a question from a user who is standing in front of her should be able to do the same thing in a chat room or through IM. Unfortunately, chat rooms are not as easily navigated as a face–to–face conversation, or even a conversation over the telephone, where visual cues are missing but tone of voice is still present to guide the mood of the conversation.

Another problem lies with the software systems that enable libraries and archives to use virtual reference functions. Many of these systems allow standardized messages to be pre–scripted. These messages can be used to fill in time gaps while the reference person is searching for the required information, in order to prevent the user from feeling dropped (Maxwell, 2002). However, from the perspective of the user, it can be disconcerting, not being able to tell if you are actually conversing with someone or simply being fed pre–recorded messages. At least on the telephone, if you are put on hold you know what has happened and you don’t confuse the recorded messages with the person who put you on hold. Another problem is the time required in answering requests arriving via a chat service. It can be a stressful situation for the reference archivist who may feel pressured to come up with an answer immediately because of the real–time nature of the conversation.

Institutions must also perform some form of cost–benefit analysis to determine if a chat program is useful for them. For some institutions, the cost of the software and time the staff must devote to it outweighs any minimal benefits, especially if such a service is unlikely to be used regularly [23]. Even if an archives is unable to provide this service full–time, a study of user needs can help to identify the hours of the day or the days of the week that are most likely to bring in requests, thus helping to make the service of benefit to the institution. Chat systems can help to fulfill the purpose of the archives by bringing users to the collection more quickly and efficiently than previous methods. This method may especially bring in users who are less familiar with archives and therefore less likely to follow other channels to gain information. A chat button on the archives’ Web site may seem less intimidating or confusing and the ability to deal directly with an archivist may help to solidify his search. A simple disclaimer on the site, stating that while all questions will be given due attention, some answers may require more research than can be done during the chat, may go a long way towards alleviating both the frustration of the user who has unrealistic expectations of what the service can provide and the anxiety of the archivist who feels she needs to come up with the answer to the query immediately.



The new virtual reference

Electronic mail, instant messaging, chat and video conferencing are all part of the tools empowering archivists to move toward what has been termed “digital reference service.” In this new world of extended reference, archivists, materials, and clients are not all in the same place at the same time. Marilyn Domas White defines digital reference service as:

An information access service in which people ask questions via electronic means. In turn, knowledgeable individuals answer questions, and responses are transmitted via electronic means. Interim search processes need not involve electronic devices although they often do. There may even be interim contact with questioners via telephone or electronic means if questions require clarification. [24]

In this age of high–speed technology, more and more archival facilities are shifting their reference services from person–to–person human contact to digital reference services. Library and archives users have been using e–mail to connect with reference staff for at least 20 years. Real–time interactions, such as those found in chat, however, are still relatively new, having only been used since approximately 1999 (Peters and Bell, 2006). While these techniques have all been used in the library reference room, they have been slower to be adopted in archival reference rooms.

Archives reference staff must learn to utilize remote reference to the fullest potential in order to best serve their researchers. Archivists must learn to shift their concentration from solely being at the reference desk, where they patiently await a researcher’s question, to actively formulating new ways to provide those same researchers online access. As Terry Cook states, “archivists must transcend mere information, and mere information management, if they wish to search for, and lead others to see, ‘knowledge’ and meaning among the records in their care” [25].

Virtual reference arrived in the archival community with modest commentary, with only an occasional essay in the professional literature exploring the topic (Tibbo, 1995). The reference room as a central location is crumbling quickly. In the past it could be assumed that the archivist, the user, and the sources would physically come together. However, now the concept and contexts of reference services have expanded, breaking their traditional container of physical locality. Most significantly, this evolution has been accomplished virtually on the Internet through the multitude of archival Web pages. In this networked, electronic environment, both the access tools to materials and the collections themselves are available to anyone who can connect to the repository through an Internet service provider. Now, clients from anywhere in the world can view repository guides, bibliographic records describing collections, entire inventories, and images and sounds of collection materials remotely. Some repositories have even set up virtual reference rooms, allowing their clients to access an even greater archival information with an ease never before available.

Although digital networked reference is still a relatively new idea in the archival world, archivists have been practicing various forms of remote reference for years [26]. Researchers have long posed reference questions to archivists via postal letters that explained their project, information needs, and research schedule. More recently, researchers may have sent their questions via fax, and telephone reference has always been a large component of archival services. However, the timing of reference services also has changed. As Thomas J. Ruller observes, research users can now use archival services on the Internet anytime they please [27]. Reference services are no longer temporarily contained to business hours. This element of digital reference has pushed the archivist to plan ahead and to prepare services for researchers at any hour without the assistance of archival reference personnel. This often is accomplished in the form of dynamic archival Web pages, offering real–time reference services. The personalization of the reference service is changing from what used to be a broad service into a directed service. Electronic remote reference provides new ways in which researchers can reach the archivist and archival information. Researchers can now correspond with archivists via e–mail without having to wait for letters to arrive or for a particular individual to be available to answer a question by phone.

As James Edward Cross notes, through digital reference, archivists are now able to “provide electronic access to finding aids and to enhance their utility” [28]. In the past, Gopher directories, and today, Web sites, have been utilized to allow access to ASCII or HTML versions of paper finding aids. Archivists also now use hypertext linkages within and between related finding aids. The Encoded Archival Description (EAD) provides a standard preserving some of the contextual formatting inherent in paper finding aids and translates it into an equivalent electronic format that is searchable using the Internet. And we know that for the moment researchers utilize archives Web sites as an initial step in their research process, seeking to use online finding aids and Web–based e–mail options to plan for future research visits [29].

Archives and archivists are clearly in a transitional period in moving from real world to virtual world scenarios, and researchers may face uncertain challenges as they endeavor to locate and then make use of documentary sources. We know that archival Web sites do not provide full access to their entire collections [30]. For some researchers tracking down the location of many archival materials can be challenging. Researchers will need to acquire new kinds of investigative skills, even if placing these guides on the Web can speed up the process of locating materials they may want to access [31]. Computers are certainly never going to be a panacea for archival reference. For every advantage there will be some problem that needs to be dealt with or at least kept in mind. One disadvantage of computer search engines is that the sheer size can lead to problems in keeping them properly updated. The Open Directory Project, for example, has a sufficient number of entries that are outdated or incorrect that an NOODP metadata tag had to be created to alert Internet search engine crawlers to use the metadata of the site instead of the ODP description in search results (Jacsó, 2007). And many archivists are struggling with such changes. A decade ago, Helen R. Tibbo reflected,

“Many individuals might question why remote reference service is necessary, especially for those repositories with traditional, paper–based resources. Change, even when it is all for the good, is generally quite a demanding process. Depending on the situation, learning new skills, new attitudes, and new behaviors is usually required — processes most people find uncomfortable, time consuming, and maybe even frightening” [32]

And so it goes as more machines enter the archival reference room, a place now perched somewhere between the real world and cyberspace.



A Web presence

For any sort of virtual reference function to develop, archives must have a place on the World Wide Web. The personal computer has led, through a complex series of developing technologies, to the creation of the World Wide Web. One of the promises of the World Wide Web is that researchers are not absolutely tied to traveling physically to archival repositories wherever they may be located. Are the promises outweighed by more difficult issues of reallocating limited resources for digitizing collections, building Web sites, and developing new approaches to creating virtual reference services?

With the advent of the Web, archivists have been given the opportunity to make their holdings available to a greater number of people than ever before. The reach of the reference room has expanded from a physical room located in a building to a virtual theater on a worldwide scale. As archives have begun posting audio files, in the case of sound archives, and materials that have been scanned or digitally photographed and uploaded to their Web sites, some researchers may no longer need to review archival holdings on site. In her analysis of remote reference correspondence Kristin E. Martin notes, “Users have high expectations for what can be accomplished from remote locations. Rather than insist that all users try to visit their archives in person, archivists should use their Web sites as a way to facilitate remote access” [33].

Archivists have known for years that the major difficulty they face with having their holdings used by researchers is in getting researchers to their repositories. In a survey of historians’ use of archival resources while conducting research, Wendy Duff, Barbara Craig, and Joan Cherry found that the largest number of respondents (63 percent) cited limited access to sources due to their geographic location as a problem encountered in accessing information [34]. Additionally, in a discussion about sound archives, Ian Craig Breaden noted the advantages of online access to archival holdings: “As information seekers rely more on digital resources, institutions providing virtual representations of holdings may benefit from increased collections usage, justifying further funding while safeguarding source materials through use of digital surrogates” [35].

Many professional groups in various countries have taken advantage of the opportunity to reach and better serve a wide online audience by organizing national databases of archives and their holdings. The United Kingdom has created Access to Archives (A2A), a site hosted by the National Archives ( A2A’s site allows users to search across finding aids from over 400 repositories in England and Wales that vary in detail and date from the eighth century to the present. Since the site’s launch in 2001, it has experienced 11.7 million searches with 28.5 million finding aids downloaded. Additionally, Canada has created Library and Archives Canada, combining the collections, services, and staff of the former National Library of Canada and the former National Archives of Canada ( As stated in its mandate, its goal it to collect and preserve Canada’s documentary heritage for present and future generations and to make it accessible to everyone.

Few imagined the transformation in providing access to archival records. The Western Illinois University Archives and Special Collections, an archival unit holding a diverse range of collections such as Mormon correspondence, French Utopian Icarian ribbons, and thousands of photographs, found that PHP metadata coding (PHP is a general–purpose scripting language used for Web development and HTML) and computer digitization let them develop a system capable of holding more than 2,400 images which could be simultaneously accessed by the entire archives staff, as well as making the collection accessible to the public (Dunlap, 2005). Similarly, the Open Archive Initiative led to developments such as the Online Archive of California offering “access to high-quality collections of text, image and sound files” (Huwe, 2005). Such computerized archival resources have had additional impacts on the archival reference function through changes in the relationship between archival research and teaching. The Dickenson Electronic Archive, an online “hypermedia archive” of the writings of the poet Emily Dickenson, enables an English professor to experiment with “new methods and philosophies of editing” as well as the making of formerly inaccessible data public to assist “interested readers” in developing a better understanding of the context surrounding the works (Smith, 2004).

The Web suggests, of course, new prospects for delivering certain kinds of documentary sources. Some local historical societies, libraries, and museums provide not only oral history interviews of their residents but include the transcription of it and background information on the community [36]. Users can access the audio file of the oral history, read what is being said in it, and read information pertaining to the geographic location. It is also possible now to create new kinds of archives, such as the September 11 Digital Archive with stories, e–mail messages, photos, audio recordings, and digital videos from more than 30,000 people [37]. Because the effects of September 11 were felt all over the country and more than one location in the United States was attacked, it would be hard to choose which city deserved a physical archive over the others. By making the archives a Web–based one, the entire country can feel they had a role (appropriately so) in establishing this archives. Another example is the Web site Valley of the Shadow with two hundred thousand primary records dealing with the American Civil War (, with a goal was to bring to Web users the feeling historians get from researching and finding materials in archives [38]. From the site, the user can access primary documents from before, during, and after the Civil War. The site makes use of personal papers, census records, maps, images, newspapers, statistics, and other record types. The links to documents provide background information on the chosen item, text interpretation, and photographs of the people involved in the original creation of the documents.

Utilizing the World Wide Web also suggests some rethinking by archivists about how they ought to design their basic means of guiding researchers into using their holdings, namely, their finding aids. An important element to consider when designing online finding aids is, of course, the potential audience. Does the archival program want to attract researchers who are already familiar with archival terms and research? Or does it want to appeal to a wide range of people of all backgrounds by designing a more visual, user–friendly search system? [39]. The Internet has improved access issues, but some ask, “Do people really find what they are looking for?” [40]. Online finding aids allow researchers to serve themselves, but only to a certain extent. Many of the documents they need will not be digitized. Moreover, will they even discover the documents that would be most useful for them? The cyberworld is vastly different from that in which archivists are used to working. Reference archivists should expect a surge in the number of requests from remote users. They will have to consider requests from users who may never have considered conducting research in the reading room of an archives. Reference archivists will have to allot time each day to respond to e–mail requests and hold scheduled chat sessions, as already noted.

All of these uncertainties and questions that archivists like Andrea Rosenbusch raise show that users will still require the assistance of reference archivists. Reference archivists must prepare themselves for a more diverse clientele and new means of communication with users. Also, archival collections will have to communicate more with each other to link their resources on the Web. Rosenbusch leaves us with two questions concerning these situations and their impact on the future of archives: In what areas will shared resources be most beneficial for the users? Will the Internet significantly alter description? [41] It will be interesting to document the evolution of online–finding aids and their effect on archival description.

Others have reached similar conclusions. Ian G. Anderson studied the information–seeking behaviors of historians in the United Kingdom, finding that creating effective online finding aids is not a simple, straightforward task. Finding aids must be reengineered in order to serve users in an online environment. Unfortunately, many archives are spending a great deal of money creating online finding aids and digitizing their documents without studying their users’ information–seeking behaviors. Anderson believes that knowing the needs and habits of the researchers is integral to fostering an effective Web presence. It is important to note that online finding aids should not simply be digital versions of paper–finding aids, since traditional finding aids do not easily translate to a digital environment without some reengineering [42]. The finding aids must be designed with the user in mind, not the archivist. In the reference room, the archivist can use his or her knowledge of the collection to supplement the finding aid. This service is not usually available virtually, so online finding aids must be designed to be user–friendly search tools. If the online finding aids are not helpful, the user may not find anything he or she needs and subsequently be turned off from archives in general [43]. Archivists must acknowledge that research methods are rapidly adapting to a cyberworld, and therefore archivists must adapt their services to attract new users.

Archivists need to rethink what purpose, and audience, they want finding aids to serve. Finding aids were not intended for remote users, so it makes sense that traditional ones do not work effectively in cyberspace. Anderson states that finding aids of the future may need to extend well beyond descriptions and locations; “We now need to develop online archival systems that are part finding aid, part expert system, and part intelligent agent able to conceptualize, mediate, and tailor the information provided” [44]. Anderson describes the ideal online finding aid, which would work like the Web site. Archivists and users could write reviews on series, or even item level descriptions. Links would be available for related materials or materials that other researches had consulted in that same topic. Although it is not feasible to digitize all of the documents in a repository, archivists could provide a digital sampling of their collection. Anderson offers his wish list for what an online archival system would offer, including item–level descriptions, finding aids linked to digital documents, and user ratings and comments [45].

Others have been less certain about what online finding aids need to be. Christopher J. Prom, who studied how American college students use online finding aids, came to no definite conclusions as to what online finding aid standards should be. He claims that many people who use online finding aids have no understanding of archival science, but, possess, instead, a great understanding of computers [46]. Thus, online finding aids are judged not only by expert researchers, but by expert information technologists. It seems to be that the ideal combination for using online finding aids is a great knowledge of archival theory and practice and plenty of experience with computers. Prom’s study involved graduate students who spoke frankly about online finding aids, many seeing them “as an essential but limited search tool” [47]. Students see the limitation when they realize they cannot access full text documents. Additionally, searching through online finding aids is not as straightforward as searching through a library catalog. Students believe that printed finding aids are more complete than those that are online. The main reason that online finding aids are not as popular as they should be, though, is that users want more than just the finding aid; users want to see the document once they have discovered the one that they need. Prom finds that people experienced in archival research are more willing to accept the fact that the documents are not online than those people who are inexperienced with archival research. Unfortunately, the lack of full text documents may turn many users away.

How should archivists design the finding aids so that they appeal to people of all backgrounds and research experience levels? Prom suggests a number of possible innovations, including, making sure that the browsing and searching options should be prominently displayed on the Web site; designing a user–friendly display as a Google–like box, so that researchers discover sites that they are familiar with, whether a doctoral student or a high school freshman; using HTML documents, rather than PDF, which can be searched more easily; and, minimizing archival terminology which may only be a barrier for most researchers [48]. Although Prom is certainly not trying to draft standards, his advice is logical and should be considered by those archivists who have the means to create online finding aids.



Scanning the archives

Researchers in archives have witnessed many changes over the past century in acquiring copies of documents. For a number of generations they were required to hand copy in laborious fashion the documents (or they hired copyists). It was only in the past four decades or so, with the advent of a dependable photocopier, that the researcher could acquire quickly and inexpensively an exact copy of a document. Digital scanners have brought a new era in researcher copying. For a while archivists fixated on scanners as a means of making copies of records to be used on their Web sites as decoration, for illustrating the range of materials they hold in their repositories, or even for placing entire collections online for researchers’ use. However, it is not just the custodians of records who are making use of scanning devices.

Now researchers are bringing portable scanners into the research rooms, purchased for a modest few hundred dollars. Whether it is an inexpensive portable scanner or a sophisticated overhead model (at tens of thousands of dollars) that practically runs itself, all scanners do more or less the same thing, more or less equally well: their electronic “eyes” measure the light reflected off a scanned surface and convert it into binary code. The resultant file can be created as a TIFF document for printing, or as a JPEG file for the Web.

There are any numbers of ways we can practically discuss the use of scanners in the archives. Given the chronic underfunding that most archives face, the financing of scanners is an essential issue. Using a scanner instead of a photocopier, for example, and electronically delivering documents can greatly reduce the need to purchase paper or toner — which, depending on the amount of copying an institution does, can represent a considerable savings. The experience of the RFK Medical Library at the University of Guam reveals that, if nothing else, the ability to e–mail requested materials to patrons can spectacularly reduce postage costs: at roughly US$11.00 for each article sent from the mainland, the use of electronic delivery saved the library thousands of dollars [49].

Scanners can also save on labor. By sending documents electronically, for example, you can eliminate the steps needed to prepare them for physical delivery. The ILL Department at the University of Texas at Galveston even found that they could reassign personnel after replacing their copiers with a scanner [50]. Replacing aging and cranky photocopiers can also find the reference archivist spending more time helping patrons with research and less time fixing machines: by the late 1990s, reference librarians at the University of Buffalo estimated that about 60 percent of their time was spent clearing jams and refilling paper [51]. The portability of some scanners means that they can be taken to the documents in instances where the delivery of the material to a photocopier poses problems, saving some time and trouble in using the records [52]. A scanner — even if it is used only by staff — can allow reference archivists to concentrate more on their users’ needs and less on the technology.

Whether or not the use of scanners saves money or appreciably reduces workload, the fact remains that the quality of reference service may improve. Requests from distance users can be filled much more quickly with electronic delivery than by mailing hard copies. There is even anecdotal evidence that publicly available scanners might allow greater access to the collections by the visually impaired, such as Marshall University’s experience with scanner technology showing that some students adapted it to serve special needs: one student would scan books and then enlarge the TIFF images at his PC station so he could read them; another used one of the library’s handheld scanners to “read” text using an artificial speech program [53]. And, as a bonus, there is the superior visual quality of the scanned document versus that of the often–problematic photocopy.

There is also the important contribution that scanners can make to preservation. A good flatbed scanner can beautifully digitize a wide range of materials that are too fragile (or indeed, too valuable) for general use. By digitizing the most endangered, most important or simply the most used documents, an archives is also taking an important step in safeguarding, if not the physical artifact itself, at least its virtual memory. However, scanners merely digitize; they don’t solve the problem of how to store and maintain the files they create. Technological obsolescence remains a pressing problem for digital documents, and not everyone is convinced of their long–term viability [54]; still, using a scanner remains a simple and cost–effective way to ensure patrons greater access to a document with less wear to the original.

Some worry about the potential physical damage inflicted by scanners on original documents, mostly worrying about possible damage to originals caused by exposure to the light and heat generated by the devices. This is especially important for archivists who may wish to scan their oldest, and most likely least stable, documents. Studies have found that scanning most adversely affects documents that are already aged and deteriorating. A recent study done in Russia points to some tentative answers, but offers no firm conclusion about the realistic amount of harm that scanning documents could cause. Conservationists at the Russian State Library scanned a series of samples (one–third artificially aged, one–third naturally aged, and one–third untouched) of three different paper types (early nineteenth–century rag paper, modern newsprint and preservation paper) and analyzed the results. Compared to control samples, the papers that had been scanned multiple times showed a loss of durability, especially in the older samples. Conversely, scanning also seemed to actually promote the bio–stability of the samples since its light destroyed microscopic mushrooms (Perminova, et al., 2006). While the authors very cautiously advise that scanning may accelerate decomposition, we still lack definitive information about the long–term consequences of scanner use. In the short term, at least, the best answer is probably to treat exposure to a scanner’s light the same way we would treat exposure to the sunlight (doing it as infrequently as possible).

There are many advantages offered to archives adopting more vigorously the use of scanners. For the archivist, the scanner offers the advantages of the photocopier along with even more valuable features. Just as with a photocopier, archivists may scan a document then provide a copy to users without the user handling the original manuscript. Even better, a scanner provides a digital copy, rather than a physical copy that must be stored and preserved by the archives. In addition, the archivist may utilize this digital copy for insurance purposes, to verify and secure the archives holdings that are more valuable. Among the advantages of digital documents is the ability for the archivist to manipulate user copies. Digital copies can be cleaned up and provided to users, keeping in mind that a high–resolution digital master is always required for photographs. In the case of digital libraries, scanners make it possible for repositories to place their collections online. This can also serve as a means of advertisement for the archives, drawing in potential users who are unaware of the holdings. At the same time, users may request digital copies from archives. Just as archivists may place these scanned documents and images online, they may also send them to others via e–mail, opening new opportunities for expanding the use of their collections.

There are other challenges to be faced in making effective use of scanned sources, such as those emanating from intellectual property issues and the scope of scanning to be done. Archivists are responsible for only posting online or distributing copied items that are in the public domain. As the Web expands, the demand for online access grows. Repositories must be prepared and aware that the more holdings become available online, the more users will expect remote access. Scanning and placing holdings online can quickly snowball into a major project. Archivists must be aware of this and ready to consider how much or how little they are interested in putting into an online site. Unfortunately, experience has shown that placing holdings online can also open up an institution to unwanted attention. Researchers and scholars are not the only people using the Internet. Those looking to steal from libraries also have access to information pertaining to holdings and may use this information (Vogt–O’Connor, 2000).

An even thornier issue is whether to allow researchers to bring scanners into the research rooms of archives. It is a fact of technology that as equipment becomes more popular, it also becomes less expensive and smaller. Scanners, which at one time were so large and expensive that it was only feasible for institutions to own them, now come in a variety of sizes and prices that make them more market–friendly. Just as we allow researchers to bring their laptops into the reference room, should they be allowed to bring their personal scanners as well? Allowing a researcher to bring a scanner into the repository enables them to copy documents without further degrading them on a photocopier and makes it available for outside perusal. Instead of confinement to the archives, users could scan their documents and take them out (virtually) of the archive on their hard drive. For anyone who has spent weeks sitting in a reference room, the idea of comfortably going over documents in one’s own living room is surely appealing.

A proponent of this idea of allowing portable scanners in research rooms is the Oxford University Library Services (OULS), which recently began allowing researchers to bring digital cameras and hand held scanners into the reference room. Flatbed scanners are forbidden, although hand held scanners, many of which do not touch the page or use only a light wheel to guide the scanner, are permitted. The OULS placed important restrictions on their use, as well as limiting the types of material that are available for copying. For instance, users may not scan rare books or special collection materials. The OULS also considered requiring users to register their equipment, but ultimately decided against this due to the size of their library system. For smaller archives or libraries, however, this would be much more feasible (Rose and Evison, 2006). Once having made a decision to allow the use of portable scanners, other tricky challenges will present themselves. With a digital copy on their hard drive, what is to stop a user from posting it online, or similarly violating copyright laws? While archivists struggle to draw users into the repository, make them aware of the holdings, and help them use the material, is it wise to encourage a practice that may keep researchers out of the archive? Some might argue we could say the same of placing holdings online; however, an archives has the ability to properly document and cite their online holdings. If individuals scan and post manuscripts, photographs, or other documents online, some worry that they take away from the value of the archival holdings, but perhaps this is merely part of a technological sea change that archivists must not merely accept but must learn to embrace. This is even more of an issue when considering digital cameras.



Click, click, click: Digital cameras in archives

Digital cameras have become very accessible to people with all levels of education and training because of their declining costs and increasing ease of use. “The growth in popularity of digital cameras is closely linked to the increased penetration of home PCs,” one marketing report declares, “which allow users to manipulate their photos, store them and e–mail them to friends and family, as well as print them” [55]. It should be no surprise that archivists are seeing a rise in the number of researchers using digital cameras in the reading room. Researchers seeking to capture information accurately and easily are turning to this method of copying rather than requesting photocopies, which are often of poor quality and difficult to read. And the ease of using such cameras has become even more pronounced with the advent of camera phones and their constantly improving quality of images: “Whereas older camera phones offered only blurry images of words when photographing a page, a megapixel phone ... can now offer crystal–clear reproductions” [56]. Archivists are experiencing a great change in user expectations, challenging them to create new and meaningful policies that reflect the changing environment. In a survey of 20 archives and libraries, a team of researchers noted that 100 percent of the repositories allowed the use of laptop computers and 75 percent allowed the use of digital cameras in their reading rooms (Bateman, et al., 2005).

Researchers’ requesting to take photos of documents is not a new issue as some archives have previously allowed analog cameras. However, the use of both analog and digital cameras raise many preservation concerns, similar to what gets discussed when the topic of portable scanners comes up. Archivists understand that a document is at risk of damage during its use, and that many researchers lack the knowledge of appropriate handling methods. Perhaps this is why many archival repositories restrict photocopying of documents to staff and do not allow patrons access to photocopy machines. Fragile documents and oversized materials are a challenge to copy on traditional photocopy machines, and archivists will often refuse to make copies of these documents because of the potential harm that will be done. However, these documents may be copied best by a digital camera. As long as a document is lying on a flat surface, little harm will be caused by photographing it without a flash. Additionally, large documents may be able to be captured in a digital image, and then with the capability of the home computer, a researcher can zoom–in on details of the image. This method is clearly more useful to researchers than are attempts to photocopy difficult materials.

The growing popularity of consumer digital cameras and other technology containing cameras (PDAs, cell phones, and laptop computers) has caused archivists and librarians to reevaluate policy concerning use of technology in the reference room. Reference archivists and librarians are discovering the difficulty of preventing patrons’ access to cameras and have had to compromise with researchers as to the extent of technological use. Some archival programs have begun to formulate rules for the limited use of these devices, promoting positive use of new technology within the institution (Rose and Evison, 2006; Carlson, 2004).

Despite the potential advantages of using digital cameras in the reading room, archivists are finding that cameras also create reference challenges. Maintaining the authenticity of digital photographs in their collections is one such issue. Others are preserving, organizing and storing the vast amounts of digital files generated by digital cameras. With the ability to see photographs instantly after capture coupled with the ability to delete photos before processing, people are much more likely to take many times the number of pictures than they have in the past. Additionally, the reference archivist will need to find some way to provide access to this large quantity of material. Fortunately, digital cameras already automatically capture minimum amounts of metadata at the moment a photograph is taken, including the date and time as well as the setting of the camera. Researchers are currently attempting to give cameras the ability to tag different elements within a photo, eliminating the need for a human processor (Weinberger, 2004). The technology might be long in coming, but it will be advantageous to reference archivists, capturing higher–level metadata and allowing archivists to be able to search future photograph collections easily.

Many archival institutions, especially university archives, have information on their Web sites about the use of electronic devices in the reading room. Some explicitly state the rules and regulations regarding the use of electronic equipment, while others simply suggest that the individual contact the institution for further questions. Stanford University’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives has an extensive worksheet regarding their policy on digital cameras. First, the researcher has to receive permission from the archives and make an appointment. Should this be granted by the Special Collections department, the researcher must bring a fully charged camera and then has only has one hour to collect digital images. Prior to this, the archivist will check to make sure the camera’s flash is turned off before the session begins. If the material is too fragile, the staff will create the digital copy for a fee [57]. Other institutions provide similar statements, although they are not quite as extensive. The University of Virginia allows the use of digital cameras on a case–by–case basis, but requires that a card stating the University’s ownership be included in the picture [58]. The policy for the Freer and Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian allows the researcher to photograph items, as long as the camera’s flash is turned off and a transparency with the Smithsonian name is placed over the item [59]. The University of Michigan also allows digital cameras, but asks that the use of the equipment not disturb others or harm the collection [60].

Allowing digital cameras within reference rooms can enable better reference services, when used by both researchers and the professional staff. Access to content within documents can be drastically improved. For instance, digital cameras provide clear images that can be manipulated in ways that analog pictures cannot, and this will open up the possibility for in–depth document examination. Software is already available to help decipher illegible writing in documents due to smudging or age, and this technology will allow users to examine records in greater detail. Librarians (and archivists) have been dealing for years with the issue of digital cameras within special collections and other sections of their institutions by setting policies concerning access and permission given to researchers (and, increasingly, including digital cameras in their circulating media collection) (Wood, et al., 2004). Not only must copyright laws and issues of privacy be taken into consideration, but also the implications of access for the researcher and the archives itself.

Naturally, the most obvious example of change within the archival world pertaining to digital cameras is that of digitizing the collection itself (Harvey, 2005; Kenney and Reiger, 2000). The ease of transporting a digital camera and the ability of researchers to bring their own cameras with them into the archives (as opposed to using an established scanner within the institution) make obvious the differences in use of scanners and digital cameras, most evidently the increased ability to respect the fragility of documents using digital cameras to copy them, as opposed to scanners. Apart from the matter of allowing researchers to carry digital cameras into the reference room, the most important benefit of digitizing any collection is the ability to create digital repositories and make them accessible and, if possible, searchable online — in other words, the process by which archivists themselves make use of various digital technologies to enhance the use of their holdings. Despite certain resistance to the destruction of original documents after an accessible copy has been made and stored elsewhere, the development of digital imagery will continue to keep the vast array of possible storage media constantly shifting and developing. As Mary Jo Pugh states, “The rapid convergence of recording technologies into digital form is, of course, the dominant fact of the last two decades. The importance of documents is demonstrated by the way people seek to invent or improve recording technologies” [61].

In addition to facilitating patron research directly in the repository, archivists can use digital cameras to produce images for institutional promotion through online advocacy, exhibition, or to promote education. Large institutions often have the resources to host digital repository Web sites. By forming collaborations between similar repositories or groups (i.e., geographical or subject interests), comprehensive digital image collections can be created. An example of this kind of digital image repository is the “Chartres: Cathedral of Notre–Dame” image collection (, a collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh Digital Research Library and Dr. Alison Stones, professor of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. This extensive collection was primarily digitally photographed by Dr. Stones and her students, and is hosted by the Digital Research Library to serve the academic needs of a university–offered course; it is also internationally available to supply documentation for similar educational purposes.

The stickiest challenge regarding the use of digital cameras might be intellectual property. Traditionally, it has been thought that the archivist must have complete control over who copies what by physically copying everything (a great constraint on time and resources), or else, by giving the control to the researcher, the archivist must then relinquish the intellectual control she had over the documents, trusting the researcher to deal fairly with the images she took. Depending on the collection, after all, the importance of maintaining control over the documents must not be forgotten, and while copyright “is a ‘cultural bargain’ that encompasses the rights for the creator, for users, and for the public,” [62] the archivist invariably ends up in the middle and must “protect legal rights in the underlying content” [63] of its digital documents.

Control over the intellectual property of archival holdings may not be reason enough for restricting digital copying devices from the reference room or patrons arriving armed with digital cameras and camera phones. Libraries and archives are allowed to make copies of copyrighted materials for preservation, replacement and patron access under Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. But that portion of copyright law does not include provisions for patrons making copies of materials from the archives. According to Laura N. Gasaway of the University of North Carolina,

“If a researcher makes his or her own copy of a work or a portion thereof with a digital camera it is no different than copying the work by hand or making a photocopy. It may well be fair use for the individual user. Because of the volume and scope of copying that libraries do, we are governed by a special section of the Copyright Act that restricts what we can do. Thus, user copying for the user’s own scholarship, research, etc., is likely to be fair use and the library is not involved.” [64]

Clearly, United States law concerning copyright is not an issue for restricting patron use of a digital camera in the reading room.

Control of how an image is used is the issue that is of greatest concern to most archival professionals in regard to patron use of digital cameras in the reading room. With digital images taken by patrons, one cannot be certain that information about the repository will ever be connected to the electronic surrogate of the original document. Additionally, archivists fear that the patron will misuse the image by publishing it in a book or posting it on a Web site without permission. An image of a document posted on a site that is devoid of the contextual information about the record group appears to be irresponsible in the eyes of many archivists. Elaine D. Engst of Cornell University tried to alleviate some of these fears when she stated, “To a certain extent, you have to trust people. Perhaps if we started to see large numbers of our images showing up in books without permission, we might think differently. But I think that most scholars are responsible” [65].

Archivists are also worried about the potential loss of revenue and loss of document and image control. Security is always a concern. If digital cameras are to be used in the reference room in place of photocopiers, for example, what is to stop patrons from distributing copyrighted materials over the Internet? Digital cameras can provide high–resolution images, which could lead to forgery attempts. It may be possible to regulate digital photography on a case–by–case basis in small institutions, but it would be a challenge for repositories with more users. Adding to the security threat is the fact that digital cameras now are present in a number of personal electronic devices, such as PDAs, cell phones and laptops.

Revenue issues are more difficult to consider. Archival repositories are notoriously under–funded, meaning a staff has to be creative in the way that it secures revenue. Archivists charge researchers for making photocopies, making photographic reproductions of images and documents, and publication fees for using images or documents as illustrations in books, journals and magazines. If researchers are allowed to create their own digital images of documents in the archives, revenue from these services are jeopardized. Some will argue that the quality of digital images taken by researchers will not be high enough to meet publication needs. Yet, the manufacturers of digital cameras continue to improve the quality of their products, and any concerns about image quality will decline and ultimately disappear.

Smaller repositories may find themselves at disadvantages in using the technology. If partnerships cannot be formed with a parent organization or similar regional institutions, new alternatives exist for smaller repositories. Flickr, a social image Web site (, has seen recent interest from the library community. Digital photographs are easily uploaded to the Internet and can be viewed by any user. Through Flickr, libraries have utilized features in addition to digital photo hosting, such as an available RSS feed and connecting with other small libraries or organizations through user communities. Images hosted through Flickr can be easily linked to an institutional Web site or blog promoting the collection, a special exhibit, or educational programs, a benefit for repositories with limited Web site space. Though free accounts are available, professional accounts are very affordable for institutions with limited budgets [66].

Small programs with limited resources can nevertheless make positive use of new technologies such as digital cameras. If a repository does not have the money to support a full–scale digitization effort for its collection but it still wants to provide online access to patrons, the digital camera is an easy, ad hoc solution. A reference archivist could take a digital photo of an item or items in their collection and send it to the patron who can then decide whether or not a trip to the archive is warranted. This eliminates the need to digitize everything, while making it possible for reference archivists to share their collections with a larger community of users. Some people might contend that selecting a few items for digitization diminishes the evidential value of the collection as a whole (Ostrow, 1998), but this needs to be weighed against other possible benefits of using such technologies in more innovative ways.

Some archival institutions are reluctant to allow such use of digital cameras because they prefer copying to be done by experienced staff, need copying fees to support other processes such as records conservation, and worry about intellectual property and digitally altering the photograph of the document (Gasaway, 2005). If archival repositories lag behind in allowing researchers to use such copying technologies, will they lose researchers? Probably not, since these institutions often hold the documentary materials needed by certain researchers, but they surely won’t make any friends by blocking such use.

Archivists must re–orient themselves to asking a different set of questions about the nature and purpose of their reference services. One of the questions archivists must ask themselves is whether or not patron access is a top priority in their institution. If it is, patrons should be able to post pictures of their findings on a Web site, for example, as long as the archives is cited as the owner of the documents. This type of publicity may even serve to draw other patrons to the archives, patrons who were previously unaware of its holdings. Archivists must realize that the dissemination of information, regardless of the means, positively affects the public’s creative spirit. Even if an institution’s pictures were distributed without consent or recognition, information is being shared with those who may never have known it existed. Copyright concerns excluded, in a perfect world archivists would not be as concerned with possessing records as they would be with sharing them.



Archival folksonomies

Though many repositories post online versions of their finding aids, most have failed to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the World Wide Web. In a case study prepared for the “New Skills for a Digital Era” colloquium, Elizabeth Yakel and Polly Reynolds wrote that “online finding aids often reproduce the structure of a paper–finding aid without taking advantage of the electronic environment” (Yakel and Reynolds, 2006). Given that archivists thus far have been reluctant (or uncertain about how) to take full advantage of the Internet, it is not surprising that Web 2.0 technologies, examples of which are wikis, folksonomies (or tagging), and blogs, have yet to be embraced by the archival community. However, such collaborative technologies have the potential to transform traditional finding aids and archival reference functions.

One of the most popular web sites employing a Web 2.0 technology is Wikipedia, an online collaborative encyclopedia ( The site revolves around the wiki, a type of Web site that allows users to add and edit content. Clicking on links contained within the entries allows users to easily browse the site. While subject to the bias of its contributors, quality control issues, and general vandalism (McCarthy, 2006), studies have shown the accuracy of Wikipedia’s content to be comparable to that of traditional encyclopedias (Giles, 2005).

The possibility of using wikis in conjunction with archival reference services has yet to be fully explored by archivists. However, a recent article posted on the American Historical Association Web site proposes the creation of a wiki to serve as a guide for researchers who use archives. Author Robert Townsend envisions users posting a variety of information concerning individual repositories to a wiki, such as contact information, links to institutional Web sites and online finding aids, photocopying policies, hotel recommendations, and even “oddities within or about the materials” (Townsend, 2006). Is it that difficult to imagine various archival programs establishing wikis for their own researchers to post comments about archival finding aids, reference services, and to make suggestions for enhancing how the archives works with researchers?

Helpful models are being developed. Elizabeth Yakel, working with students from the University of Michigan as part of the Finding Aids Next Generation (FANG) project, has managed to create an innovative online finding aid that incorporates Web 2.0 technologies. The resulting product of the group’s efforts marks a bold departure from notions of how finding aids should look and function ( The site’s graphic design incorporates images from the collection, and the rigid hierarchical structure of a traditional finding aid has been replaced with a series of interlinking entries for individuals, military units, subjects, geographical locations, even media types, providing the user with multiple ways to browse the collection. Entries also include “link paths,” that display what viewers of that particular page also visited. Materials in the collection, such as maps, diaries and photographs, have been digitized and are linked to the finding aid. Yakel notes that online finding aids “need to minimize archival jargon and diminish the reliance on users’ prior understanding of hierarchical finding aids” [67]. To this end, archival terms (such as “provenance” and “Encoded Archival Description”) are linked to a glossary on the Society for American Archivists Web site, making it easy for users outside the field to understand the terminology.

It is the opportunity for increased interaction with researchers that is the most innovative aspect of the next generation of archival finding aids. The finding aid developed by Yakel and her students allows for input from its users, who can start an account that will enable them to post comments or new information about the materials and individuals represented in the collection. The group has plans to implement a folksonomy, another concept associated with Web 2.0. Also referred to as tagging, the folksonomy is featured prominently on Flickr, where it has “enhanced the search and retrieval process as it allows users to implement their own natural language vocabulary and not be constrained by authoritative cataloging terminology” [68]. Wikipedia defines folksonomy as “an Internet–based information retrieval methodology consisting of collaboratively generated, open–ended labels that categorize content such as Web pages, online photographs, and Web links.” Furthermore, it states that folksonomy is “most notably contrasted from a taxonomy in that the authors of the labeling system are often the main users (and sometimes originators) of the content to which the labels are applied” [69]. Emanuele Quintarelli explains, “tagging or folksonomy is a manifestation of people moving away from hierarchical authoritative schemes. Rather than learning yet another imposed external scheme to classify items and to restrict, to some extent, the user’s thinking, people started to associate their own tags [with] the items they wanted to collect and share” (Quintarelli, 2005).

Others have been experimenting with archival finding aids in similar ways. In a talk given at the 2006 SAA annual conference, Peter Van Garderen (2006) outlined his ideas for incorporating Web 2.0 technologies into finding aids. Noting the existence of description backlogs at many archives, Van Garderen suggests giving researchers the opportunity to contribute to finding aids. He points out that the typical archives user, whether a historian, genealogist, or educator, would be well qualified (sometimes more so than the archivist) to describe the materials in a collection. Users of the finding aid, regardless of where they are physically located, would be able to organize, discuss, and add materials to the collection. Van Garderen, acknowledging the reservations that archivists may feel at the thought of giving users access to modify the finding aid, proposes that the user’s input first be posted to a “Virtual Reference Room.” Archivists could then sort through the contributions and add what they see fit. Information added by researchers could be designated as such in order to maintain the integrity of the original descriptions (Van Garderen, 2006). Seen in this fashion, the use of new technologies are not dangers but assistants to the mission of archivists in enhancing access to their documentary holdings.

The growing influence of the Web is allowing the reengineering of many dimensions of the work of information professionals such as librarians and archivists. When the World Wide Web was starting up, a seemingly overwhelming amount of data and information had to be organized in order to be accessible. So called “information architects” were needed to bring order to the chaos by developing site maps, navigation systems, and similar taxonomies. However, it appears that the Web is outgrowing these initial information models. “The problem is,” Joshua Porter (2006) explains, “that IA [Information Architecture] models information, not relationships. Many of the artifacts that IAs create [...] are information models built on the assumption that a single way to organize things can suit all users.” To find relevant information in this kind of information model, users have to be already familiar with the system and the terminology that was used to establish categories. According to Clay Shirky (2005), the weakness of such an authoritative, pre–classified information system is that “the views of the catalogers necessarily override the user’s needs and the user’s view of the world. If you want something that hasn’t been categorized in the way you think about it, you are out of luck.” In response to these changing information needs, new communication models are emerging that are shaped and defined by the users themselves, building a new framework of social media.

When we consider the potential of new technologies in the hands of non–professional but informed users of archives, we begin to see the power of new machines in the archives. Archival holdings, very much like the data stored on the World Wide Web, need organizational control in order to be accessible. In archives, organizational control is usually based on a descriptive finding aid, which in turn is based on a specific, hierarchical taxonomy and, often controlled, vocabulary. However, the prescribed taxonomy of the finding aid has rarely afforded self–explanatory access to uninitiated users. At this point, the archival functions of organization and access have often collided. The reason for this conflict lies in the fact that users have to learn specialized classification schemes and their vocabulary in order to develop access strategies to holdings. Thus, archivists routinely had to function as translators of finding aids. What would happen if we could engage our users in defining and describing archival content and in communicating it to others? Is it possible that the analog archives tradition can learn from the movement of social media and social design? Some of the opportunities include diminishing the role of the archivist as gatekeeper, promoting participation and collaboration among users, and enriching the archives itself by tapping into the specialized and diverse knowledge of researchers [70]. However, to reach this goal archivists need to transform traditional concepts inherited from the analog environment and take advantage of the benefits virtual public and academic cultures can offer.

Are we witnessing a major shift in how archivists interact with their researchers and in how they view technology? Elizabeth Yakel argues that increased exposure of archival holdings via digital technologies will benefit archival advocacy in many ways, such as enhanced use and application of primary sources in teaching (Yakel, 2004b). However, this is only the beginning. The role of an archivist in the digital age will probably require less focus on research assistance but more on providing and maintaining an online environment in which users can interact, collaborate, contribute, and find access tools. In this context, archivists will function as research facilitators, enabling users to support and educate each other in their online experience. This approach would follow the groundbreaking examples of Web sites based on social navigation and take into account the changes in online user behaviors and expectations. The virtual archives would then be able to build interactive relationships with researchers, who already expect to be engaged, invited to investigate, and able to build relationships among themselves.

Certainly, there will be obstacles that are rooted in entrenched academic and archival traditions, belief systems, and practices from the analog world. Elizabeth Losh, for example, takes a thorough look at experiments in virtual teaching and discovers problems that are still standing in the way of collaborative virtual communities in institutions of higher learning. She states, “Because the proximate, pragmatic interests of stakeholders are rewarded by the strategic consolidation of power, initiatives for sustainable digital collaboration in higher education are often stifled in favor of virtual enterprises that replicate conventional discourses and consequently also fail to succeed at the specific task of improving information literacy and enhancing learning and teaching in the long run” [71]. Others generally distrust collaborative user–based categorization of online content pointing to “inconsistencies” and arguing that folksonomies “are confusing cataloging structure with personal opinions and subsequent social bookmarking” (Peterson, 2006). Apparently, these critics do not yet understand that tagging is not replacing cataloging but augmenting cataloging, that it is precisely the idiosyncratic and subjective nature of those tags that are making this model successful. “Traditional hierarchies of organizing information (or reality),” Quintarelli points out, “will not be replaced by tags, but through tagging we are finding new ways of thinking about classification and new applications for organizing and sharing knowledge” [72]. User–based tagging provides immediacy, efficiency, flexibility, and shared subculture knowledge. Tagging establishes a meaningful relationship between many subgroups of users for whom this shared information is relevant because it is built on subjective usability.

Harnessing the new information technologies will enable archivists to be more facile in responding to researchers’ needs as well as their increasing sophistication in adopting and adapting these technologies. Adam Mathes (2004) explains that a “folksonomy, with its uncontrolled nature and organic growth, has the capability to adapt very quickly to user vocabulary changes and needs.” According to his analysis, other benefits include lower costs for users in terms of time and effort, and an environment of “communication and sharing” that goes beyond isolated individualistic activities. For example, without tagging and social media sites such as Wikipedia or ( it would be very difficult to find useful definitions of the term “folksonomy” or related concepts, and even harder to discover the wealth of writings and blog–based discussions that cyberspace has to offer on this subject.

At last, archives have a real opportunity to abandon the role of gatekeeper and invite user participation, interaction, and knowledge–sharing. For some, the question is whether archivists will embrace these opportunities; for others, the issue may be how long it will take for archivists to adopt a much different view towards their clientele. Focusing on obstacles in the archival context, Elizabeth Yakel observes a “reluctance to let researchers into the virtual archives in a more active role” and believes that this attitude is based on “the desire to maintain authoritative metadata about collections and probably to a lesser extent the authority of the archivists.” At the same time, her analysis of archival Web sites experimenting with social navigation features has shown that “engaging the researcher and eliciting their knowledge base can strengthen metadata about collections as well as the collections themselves” [73]. Allowing users to tag archival content provides leveled and broader access because the tags reflect a user vocabulary and not hierarchically imposed controlled metadata.



Adaptive technologies: Reaching and empowering new researchers

There may be some extra benefits for archives investing in Web sites and willing to experiment with new technologies. The archival community is increasingly interested in the needs and limitations of their users. For much of their history, archivists have wrongly assumed that high functioning academic researchers were their bread and butter, and archivists have arranged much of the reference function around this assumption. It is increasingly clear however that the majority of patrons are non–academics, that most of the users are in fact genealogists and others. Many genealogists are older adults, retirees with a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, representing a variety of specialized access challenges, including visual, hearing and mobility limitations. Many adaptive technologies have been used in the library world to facilitate reference and access for handicapped patrons, including the visually impaired.

Adaptive technologies include “a wide variety of electronic items that enable an even wider variety of people with disabilities and seniors to live independently. Many of the devices are based on computer technology” [74]. The use of adaptive technologies for the handicapped began with the Readaphone talking book in 1934. The Readaphone made use of some of the technological breakthroughs of the Hollerith card readers created at the turn of the twentieth century. This reader allowed the blind to listen to texts; this was especially helpful for those who had lost their vision late in life, making Braille difficult to learn. Technology also assisted the deaf, and in 1964 a teletype machine was developed to translate the spoken word into type, making the use of the telephone possible for the deaf community. The Internet further assisted the deaf community, as exemplified by hearing impaired Vinton Cerf’s use of ARPANET in 1972 to communicate with deaf individuals, including his wife, through e–mail. The boom in personal computing also assisted the visually impaired community in 1975 with the development of the Kurzwell Reading Machine. An advanced, computerized manifestation of the earlier Readaphone, the Kurzwell reading machine made use of the first optical character recognition (OCR) technology. OCR continues to be the core of many computer based adaptive technologies for the blind. At present, a variety of software and hardware combinations facilitate access to electronic materials (Hertz, 2000).

Other similar technologies have added to the litany of available adaptive technologies. In 1995, the Windows 98 operating system was released with standard accessibility options, including text size manipulation and adjusted color schemes to assist those with partial visual handicaps. Windows 98 also included basic reader functions that assist not only visually impaired users, but also users with reading disabilities such as dyslexia. In 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium released Web Content Accessibility Standards ( with recommendations for disability access including text size, layout considerations, and audio file integration. A number of programs are commercially available to facilitate the use of technology by the visually impaired. JAWS for Windows by Henter–Joyce produces voice output for the contents displayed on the screen. ZoomText Xtra by A–I Squared is a screen magnifying program and reader. Megadots & Duxbury Braille Translator Braille typing programs, the Kurzweil 3000 Pro Color Integrated scanning, OCR and editing program and the Dragon 8 oral transcription programs all offer plug and play accessibility for libraries and could offer similar functions in the archival setting [75].

The potential of these adaptive technologies for enhancing access to archival collections is substantial. Optical character recognition systems facilitate translating text to audio or Braille output. The process involves three basic steps, input, processing and output. First, a scanner saves the information, then the program recognizes the text, and finally the characters are translated into the chosen output. OCR systems recognize a variety of typefaces and assess and process layouts. Speed of scanning and translation also affects the efficacy of the technology. From the user perspective, the complexity of using the software is important, as are issues such as the interoperability and compatibility with hardware and other software packages (for example, computer–produced Braille) [76].

Libraries have been far ahead of archives and historical manuscripts programs in the use of adaptive technologies. Libraries, particularly public and academic libraries, regularly provide a number of assistive reference measures. Most libraries carry a number of large–print items, and provide large–type printing of materials upon request. Access equipment is often provided, including closed circuit televisions attached to video equipment; these setups allow a patron to place a book under the camera, and read enlarged text on the monitor. Enlarged font workstations are increasingly common in libraries of all types [77]. Adaptive technology workstations using Zoomtext voice output software are also available [78]. The National Library Service for Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is a program of the Library of Congress that provides free Braille and audio services [79]. Web Braille is an Internet–based service provided by the NLS. It is viewable offline, and works in conjunction with an embossing apparatus with a Braille display, Braille aware note–taker, or hardcopy Braille embosser. This service is available to non–profits and schools for the blind [80].

A variety of adaptive resources have been developed for the visually impaired that could be integrated into the archival reference room. Screen enlargers and electronic magnifiers could allow patrons to gain easier access to both print and electronic materials. Screen readers presenting graphics and text as speech would allow visually impaired patrons, including the blind and elderly, to access the wide variety of materials that have already been scanned and Web–mounted by a variety of institutions. Speech recognition systems can assist patrons in using computer–based systems. Refreshable Braille displays that produce tactile output, one line at a time, and Braille embossers, which create Braille embossed paper, could both enhance access to digitized collections. Something as simple as large–print word processors and magnified copying could allow for better access. A working knowledge of the accessibility options built into commonly used operating system settings would be a positive move and increased education among reference archivists could facilitate measures both large and small to improve access to a wide variety of patrons [81]. At the least, the consideration of such technologies suggests that archivists have much more to gain by experimenting with these and other technologies. Archivists ought not to fear the loss of control of their holdings in the use of such information technologies, but they should focus on the enhancement of access to their documentary resources.




As information technologies have become both more powerful and portable, individuals have become mobile information processing centers. However, there have been negative implications as well. New information technologies seem to threaten the creation of records and certainly their long–term maintenance. The cellular telephone has become a symbol of society’s love–hate relationship with information technology, and many archivists and records managers have lamented the impact of such technologies on traditional records formats. The now ubiquitous device is seen by many as critical to their lives, while many point to its presence as one of annoyance and a reflection of never having a moment to oneself. Archivists and records managers have long since stopped lamenting the impact of telephony on written documents, and, in fact, they now seem interested in how cellular telephones enable capturing events from the inside as they unfold (as can be seen in the efforts to document and memorialize the events of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) [82].

Each individual seeks to build their own language and archives about their own family and heritage. One linguist builds on an idea about language being crucial to the notion of how individuals save items related to themselves, families, and society; he says that “as individuals, we value highly those linguistic scraps of personal documentation which have come down to us from our ancestors — a grandparent’s diary, the name scribbled on the back of a photograph, the entries in parish registers and gravestone inscriptions — all of which provide evidence of our own pedigree” [83]. Even though one information management expert trying to grapple with the changing fortunes and future directions of the information professions has argued that the emphasis of the traditional information professions on their information artifacts has led to their irrelevance in modern society, many in our society are renewing their concern for all documents, analog and digital, as a means of securing their place in the world [84].

All of the various technologies described in this essay are a means for archivists to expand the notion of who uses their documentary sources and how and why they do so. In some ways, these new machines in the archives represent greater, even unprecedented, opportunities for archivists to carry out their professional mission.

Maybe we need to empower the individual, or, even, to understand that individuals will come to assume more and more responsibility for preserving our digital heritage — rather than records professionals’ constant search for the magic solution for all systems in all institutional and individual applications. Ben Shneiderman’s inspiration comes from Leonardo Da Vinci’s penchant for personal recordkeeping: “He was an endless doodler, sketcher, and dreamer who tucked several notebooks of varying sizes into his waist belt to record his thoughts” [85]. While the inspiration may come from Leonardo’s use of information, sometimes expressed in recordkeeping, one can be skeptical of how much attention Shneiderman might devote to the mechanics of records systems. However, in his four applications — e–learning, e–business, e–healthcare, and e–government — there are allusions to just such matters, if sometimes only in symbolic or general ways. For example, Shneiderman tries to demonstrate the potential power of computing when he compares the ability of the elite to establish archives and museums being rivaled by the new potential of computing sensitive to human needs: “Royalty and presidents have libraries of their archives with photos of their accomplishments but in the future more people will create museums on the Web and slide shows about their lives and ancestors” [86]. This may be a shift of paradigmatic dimensions.

From the perspective of an archivist many questions may arise about the relevance of such human–sensitive computing for administering records systems. Given the continuing struggles to find practical solutions for electronic records management, one wonders whether the issue is creativity of the records professionals or the interest of systems designers or the fact that individuals and institutions still have not determined that the maintenance of digital records is a crucial matter. Perhaps the new and emerging technologies, especially as they become common devices in the hands of so many individuals, will assist records professionals to document their organizations and society in ways never dreamed of before. Helen Samuels, for example, who has devised new educational appraisal approaches, now believes we can use and adapt educational technologies. Drawing on technologies being used in the classroom (but not distance education), such as TEAL (Technology–Enhanced Active Learning), wikis, simulations, and ePortfolios, Samuels writes, “Those of us who graduated from college in the pre–computer age left with perhaps a few spiral notebooks or a ring binder of class notes, graded papers and perhaps a thesis. Now a student might leave with a complete record of each course and a thoughtful analysis of their learning process. The resulting record reflects a very different educational process” [87]. Here we certainly find a more positive assessment of the challenging uses for information technologies, and one archivists ought to embrace. Archivists need to use wisely the machines available to them and take the riches of their repositories into the world. End of article


About the authors

This essay emerged from a class assignment in LIS 2223, Archival Access, Advocacy, and Ethics, taught in the Spring 2007 term. Students contributing to this essay include Lisa Alderfer, Brigitta Arden, Therese Barry. Abby Bence, Siri Berdahl, Brian Bleich, Mary Boerger, David Grinnell, D’Arcy Jackson, Yolanda Johnson, Lucy Jones, Kristin Justham, Stephen Kjellman, Angela Manella, Christina D. Patton, David Perrotta, Robin C. Pike, Robert Presutti, Kristiane Pritchard, Matt Strauss, Molly Tighe, Emily Uhrin and Anita Vannucci. Richard J. Cox is Professor in Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences where he is responsible for the archives concentration in the Master’s in Library Science degree and the Ph.D. degree. He has written extensively on archival and records management topics and has published 14 books in this area. Dr. Cox was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists in 1989.



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2. Featherstone, 2000, p. 177.

3. Voss and Werner, 1999, p. ii.

4. Stout, 2002, p. 23.

5. McInnes, 1998, p. 211.

6. Sanford, 2003, p. 99.

7. Phillips, 2005, p. 58.

8. Some of these features are already in use — in real time — in a network of more than 2,000 cameras deployed by the Chicago Police Department; see Glick, 2004.

9. Bolt Beranek Newman (BBN) was a company hired by the U.S. Defense Department to build the first Internet in 1966. The network was referred to as ARPAnet or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, which again was provided by the U.S. Defense Department.

10. Baron, 1998, p. 157.

11. Janes, 2002, p. 560.

12. Janes, 2002, p. 554.

13. Janes, 2002, p. 557.

14. Diamond and Pease, 2001, p. 212.

15. Janes, 2002, p. 561.

16. Malbin, 1997, p. 70.

17. Malbin, 1997, p. 75.

18. Pugh, 2005, p. 134.

19. Pugh, 2005, p. 135.

20. Forster, 2006, 149.

21. Forster, 2006, 151.

22. Forster, 2006, 152.

23. See, for example, Radford and Kern, 2006; Bobal, et al., 2005.

24. White, 2001, p. 211.

25. Cook, 1984–85, p. 49.

26. Tibbo, 1995, p. 299.

27. Ruller, 1997, p. 162.

28. Cross, 1997, p. 17.

29. Cross, 1997, p. 17; Duff and Johnson, 2001, p. 54.

30. Salzmann, 2004, p. 44.

31. Duff, et al., 2004, p. 16.

32. Tibbo, 1995, p. 296.

33. K. Martin, 2001, p. 41.

34. Duff, et al., 2004, p. 14.

35. Breaden, 2006, p. 33.

36. Larson, 2001, p. 598.

37. D.J. Cohen, 2004, p. 296.

38. Kornblith, 2001, p. 147.

39. Rosenbusch, 2001, p. 49.

40. Rosenbusch, 2001, p. 46.

41. Rosenbusch, 2001, p. 52.

42. Anderson, 2004, pp. 82–83.

43. Anderson, 2004, p. 86.

44. Anderson, 2004, p. 114.

45. Anderson, 2004, pp. 114–115.

46. Prom, 2004, p. 238.

47. Prom, 2004, p. 245.

48. Prom, 2004, pp. 251–252, 261, 262, 263.

49. A. Cohen, 2002, 110.

50. Ives, 2000, p. 124.

51. Lindstrom and Dutcher, 2001, p. 44.

52. Huwe, 2004, p. 29.

53. Prisk and Brooks, 2005, p. 16.

54. See, for example, the preservation section of Lopatin, 2006.

55. Anonymous, 2006, p. 34.

56. Chan, 2004, p. 30.

57. See the statement on duplication services at

58. See “Frequently Asked Questions” at

59. “Doing Research: Visiting the Archives” at

60. “Guide to the Use of the Bentley Historical Library,”

61. Pugh, 2005, p. 11.

62. Pugh, 2005, p. 226.

63. Pugh, 2005, p. 225.

64. Quoted in Kaplan, 2006, pp. 7 and 25.

65. Quoted in Carlson, 2004, p. A39.

66. Gordon and Stephens, 2006, pp. 44–45.

67. Yakel, 2004a, p. 75.

68. Yakel and Reynolds, 2006, p. 3.

69., accessed on 25 January 2007.

70. See various projects mentioned in Yakel, 2004b and 2006.

71. Losh, 2005, p. 5.

72. Quintarelli, 2005, p. 10.

73. Yakel, 2006, p. 160.

74. See the Cleveland Public Library, “Adaptive technology available to people with print disabilities and seniors at Cleveland Public Library,” at

75. See the Web sites of the Cleveland Public Library, Indiana University Southeast (, and San Joaquin Delta College, (

76. Mates, 1991, pp. 63–69.

77. See the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Web site at

78. See the University of Oregon Libraries Web site at

79. For information about its programs, see

80. For information, see

81. For example, see Microsoft’s “Resource guide for individuals with visual difficulties and impairments,” at and Apple’s “Vision,” at

82. For an informal history, see Agar, 2003.

83. Crystal, 2000, p. 41.

84. Myburgh, 2005, p. 118.

85. Shneiderman, 2002, p. 8.

86. Shneiderman, 2002, p. 98.

87. Samuels, 2006, p. 8.



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Editorial history

Paper received 14 April 2007; accepted 10 October 2007.

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, Richard J. Cox and the University of Pittsburgh archives students.

Machines in the archives: Technology and the coming transformation of archival reference by Richard J. Cox and the University of Pittsburgh archives students
First Monday, Volume 12 Number 11 - 5 November 2007