One of the more remarkable aspects of the Way We Live Now is our expectations in finding answers right away. We reach for our smartphones to check the weather or decide on a restaurant or a show or find out the latest news. When the questions are deeper, many of us turn first to the Internet, hoping for answers that are but a click away.
In the OCLC’s report The Digital Information Seeker, researchers took a look at the numerous user studies that address the behavior of the general public and scholars from several disciplines about this phenomenon. Although the report focuses largely on libraries, the implications for the archives community and its users are equally valid. By analyzing twelve separate studies, “The Digital Information Seeker” developed a profile of changing user behaviors:
- Regardless of age or experience, academic discipline, or the context of the information need, speed and convenience are important to users.
- Researchers particularly appreciate desktop access to scholarly content
- Users also appreciate the convenience of electronic access over the physical library
- Users are beginning to desire enhanced functionality in library systems
- They also desire enhanced content to assist them in evaluating resources
- They seem generally confident in their own ability to use information discovery tools
- However, it seems that information literacy has not necessarily improved
- High-quality metadata is thus becoming even more important for the discovery process.
Underscoring all of these findings is a greater public demand for more digital content. As any archivist will tell you, what is available online is still only a fraction of what’s possible.
In addition to the cry for more digital content, the report points out the continued desire for speed and convenience as well as enhanced resources—from the digital content itself to actual human assistance—in helping users find what they seek. While millions of people are contributing data through social media, including comments, annotations, tags, ratings, and reviews, they continue to need a cadre of professionals standing behind the data. Archivists, librarians, and curators now play a greater role in sorting through, authenticating, and analyzing massive amounts of information, while also providing context for historical documents.
It has been a persistent goal from the very beginning of the professionalization of archival practices in the United States. A few years after the founding of the National Archives and the Society of American Archivists, The American Archivist summed up the challenge in 1939:
“Just as librarians promote the use of books, and as teachers defend before the public the value of education, so archivists have as part of their duty to give stimulus and guidance to the use of archives, and to their use not by the few but by the many.”
Access for the many, that persistent goal of the libraries, archives, and museums community, may have been achieved, in part, by putting digital content on the Web, but it does not mitigate the need for continued stewardship of the historical records and professional assistance for the digital information seekers.
One key task ahead is to help students gain critical thinking skills and basic research techniques when seeking and using historical records in both analog and digital formats. In addition to developing digital literacy, users need to recognize the complexities of archival materials and to locate and effectively use them in a wide range of repositories. A central irony of the age is that the unprecedented access to information requires greater levels of skill and understanding to find the right answers and to ask the next questions.
To that end, the NHPRC has created a new funding category for “Literacy and Engagement with Historical Records.” The first round of applications has just arrived, and we are reading them with interest, looking for ways to provide not only access for the many and quick access via the Internet, but a deeper understanding of the historical records themselves through the work of archivists.