On Archives Users Present and Future
Notes from the ACA Conference
It was perhaps unsurprising that the 2016 annual Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) conference was themed “‘Futur Proche’: Archives and Innovation.” “Futur proche,” refers to the future tense in French and is also arguably the primary orientation of most discussions about archives and their users. Archivists’ pre-occupation with the future reflects the underlying preservation mission of archives. Barbara Craig cogently defines the mission of archives is to “acquire, preserve and make available records of enduring value” (135) and that records, not researchers, are the real clients of archives (141). Similarly, Richard Pearce-Moses proposes the Roman god Janus, who simultaneously looks forwards and backwards, as the “perfect patron” for archivists because they “are committed to preserving the record of what has been, [but they] do so for the future” (13).
While archives discourse has been traditionally focused on the future, the need to understand how researchers engage with archives in the present is becoming increasingly important. As the conference’s panel on Technology-Driven Public Service in Academic Archives emphasized, rapidly evolving digital technologies are redefining how users currently discover and work with records. Courtney Mumma from the Internet Archive, as part of the panel on Archiving the Web and Digital Media, also detailed the challenges and opportunities for researchers as they are now turning to web archives as research datasets. The concept of community engagement with archives is also taking on new meaning as archivists consider the affordances that digital technologies can bring to this arena. This issue was highlighted during the Innovative Approaches to Metadata panel, which featured user experience methodologies and community consultation as mechanisms for improving archival experience.
Despite an increased need to understand and accommodate for how researchers engage with archives in the present, archives continue to lag behind libraries and museums in conducting research on their patrons. Beyond the underlying orientation of archives’ mandates towards preserving records for the future, research on archivists’ attitudes suggests that they are reticent to develop and apply evaluation methods of current patron activity. This reticence is not due to lack of interest or a conviction that these methods will elicit useful information, but rather, due to their perceived lack of time and/or expertise towards developing these forms of evaluation.
The panel I participated on at the ACA conference, User Access: Research and Methods, was a call for greater attention to and investigation into archives patrons, their research needs, and designing archives services accordingly. Jonathan Dorey presented an evaluation tool of archives websites, which he used to evaluate the current state of university archives websites in Canada from the perspective of undergraduate, novice users. My presentation shared the methodology for the Religious Studies project, a multi-institutional collaboration that trained information professionals from eighteen institutions to study their religious studies scholars towards developing actionable findings for improving services in their libraries, archives and special collections. The Religious Studies project, which is part of Ithaka S+R’s ongoing Research Support Services program that studies the information needs of researchers by discipline, is an example of how professional development for conducting research on users can be fostered in information settings.
While skills and resource gaps continue to be a barrier to conducting user research in archives settings, the push to understand researchers’ evolving needs in digital research points to an increased interest in, and need for research on, current archives patrons. The needs of the present, the current researcher, remain an important consideration as we must remain vigilant about the needs of the “Futur Proche.”
 Barbara Craig, “What are the Clients? Who are the Products? The Future of Archival Public Services in Perspective,” Archivaria 31, Winter (1990-91): 135, http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/viewFile/11726/12675.
 Richard Pearce-Moses, “Janus in Cyberspace: Archives on the Threshold of the Digital Era, The American Archivist 70, no. 1 (2007), 13-22, http://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.70.1.n7121165223j6t83.
 Wendy Duff, Jean Dryden, Carrie Limkilde, Joan Cherry, and Ellie Bogomazova, “Archivists’ Views of User-based Evaluation: Benefits, Barriers, and Requirements,” The American Archivist 71, no. 1 (2008), 144-166, http://dx.doi.org/10.17723/aarc.71.1.y70837374478t146.