Electronic Reference Services

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According to Cook, T (1990), the role of archival science in a postmodernist world challenges archivists everywhere to rethink their discipline and practice. The digital age has brought about noteworthy changes in the archival line of work. The digital age brought about the electronic record which in itself introduced new thoughts and concepts of the whole profession. An upbeat account of the United States Centre for Electronic Records Archive focuses on access and validation strategies.

A wider perspective is taken from an Australian viewpoint showing how record keeping is increasingly electronic, but emphasizes the essence of traditional records management and informational skills. The electronic record reference has become known to be digital reference (or virtual reference), a service by which the archives or a records repository reference service is conducted online, and the reference transaction is a computer based communication. It is the delivery of reference services provided by the archives to users who cannot access or do not want face-to-face communication.

This form of reference work expands reference services from the physical reference desk to a “virtual” reference desk where the patron could be writing from home, work or a variety of other locations. Due to the electronic record the centrality of the reference room being the interface between the user and the records is now a notion of the past. 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. White (2001) 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. Digital networked reference is still a relatively new idea in the archival world, conversely archivists have been practicing various forms of remote reference for years.

Researchers used to pose reference questions to archivists via postal letters that explained their project, information needs, and research schedule. However, the timing of reference services also has changed. Ruller observes that research users can now use archival services on the Internet anytime they delight. 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.

The personalization of the reference service is changing from what used to be a broad service into a directed service. Electronic reference provides new ways in which researchers can reach the archivist and archival information. Researchers can now correspond with archivists via electronic mail without having to wait for letters to arrive or for a particular individual to be available to answer a question by phone. Archivists have since changed their roles in order to fit their profession in this new prototype.

According to Dearstyne (2012; 185), the increasing creation and use of the electronic record occasions needs more attention to archivist’s relationship with researchers. There are several areas in which researchers and archivists can and should work together to address common needs. The best way in which both the archivist and the researcher meet is through reference services. Tibbo, 1995 in his article cites that 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. Currently the concept and contexts of reference services have expanded, breaking their customary container of physical locality. Most considerably, 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.

Patrons 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. Electronic referencing has become the centrality of the reference room as the primary container of user services is eroding.

In the past when paper records were the dominant type of records that were available researchers would physically have to go the archives and be able to access the physical document. With the electronic record however it is a dynamic virtual concept (cook, n. d) that can be accessed over the internet without both the researcher and the archivist physically meeting. Due to this change many archives have set up virtual reference rooms for example the use of Skype. With the continuing advancement of digital and technological innovation, archivists are having to deal with numerous, confusing issues.

The corresponding implications of the technological “progress” within archives are often far–reaching and extensive. Taylor (2003) projects 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. While archivists strive to create a presence on the Web and use it in innovative ways, other challenges emerge.

As they 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? The scope of administering a virtual archives and reference service can be daunting, as one example reveals. Electronic mail can be a fortunate thing to researchers, but it can also be a difficulty for archivists who must deal with multiple forms of electronic records such as electronic mails, 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, will ensure the need for trained archivists to archive their products.

Pugh, M. J observes that the ability to develop a virtual conversation with patrons, one that may be referred back to if necessary, is another advantage of electronic mail over traditional mail. However, there are many issues with the reliance on electronic 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. Aside from being free, e–mail allows patrons to easily and quickly request information about archives’ Her argument is that archivists need to change to fit users, but achieving this will require more than merely changing some technology.

It may be noted 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. Ultimately good archival reference starts with truly understanding and fulfilling the individual needs of the researchers. Another key component that has changed due to the electronic record and electronic referencing is the timing of the reference activities.

At first reference services were only offered during working hours of the repository in question, beyond that reference services were given by telephone or snail mail. With the advent of the electronic record, reference services are as Ruller J, suggests ‘open all night’. Through the use of the internet archivists can now post their finding aids and catalogues over the internet and any one can access them at any given time. Other archivists have embarked on the use of podcasting which is the use of videos to illustrate their work. The most common type of podcasting would be the use of YouTube.

An archivist can record their reference services and post it on the sites thus assisting the patrons that are usually busy during the day to visit the repository or even potential patrons that are in distant or remote places. Web 2. 0 is changing the way that archivists interact technically with their users, it is also changing the mindset and the skill set necessary to successfully thrive as an archivist in the digital era, Gordon (2009). They are user-focused and plan with the user in mind. Arhivists now embrace Web 2. 0 technologies as tools to engage in conversations with their users.

They are capable of making quick decisions about which technologies to use and which to disengage from. The archivist has an opportunity to carefully consider how selected technologies can enhance their ability to engage in conversations with their users. They constantly look for new ways to push the content held in their collections out to their users. Archivists are now in continuous learning mode and are continually looking for new challenges and opportunities. The interactive archivist adapts to change, while holding true to the core values and ethics of the archival community.

This also improves reference services and less reliance will be on the archives as the only sole place for reference services. Tapscott and Williams (nd) cite that, we must “harness the new collaboration or perish. ” Web 2. 0 technologies, include commenting features and wiki platforms, would allow for archivists to leverage the knowledge of patrons and peers in providing information about the collections. Sharing data with others would also have positive results for archives, and results in building bibliographies, digital exhibits, and virtual collection guides.

The web 2. 0 technologies promote conversations between the user and the archivist; this is where the notion of the interactive archivist comes into play. These conversations can be facilitated by the use of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, social networking software, facebook, flickr and other related tools. Conversations can be about collections and how they better enable us to understand a given topic, they can also be about how best to use archival materials and why those materials need to be handled with care.

They can be about matters of professional importance or about local issues. An important aspect of these new conversations is the way that they change the relationship between the archivist and the user. Archivists can no longer remain the authoritative voice of knowledge; rather, they must engage as co-equals with the user and search for solutions together, (Yakel,2000). Archivists have too long been concerned only about the use of the archival record or information as defined by location that is the repository.

In the post custodial environment, reference service is no longer tied to records physically in the domain of the archives rather reference service will be expanded to include records in not under the archival agency’s physical domain but still under archival responsibility. This also brings about the notion that records are deemed archival because of the value that they possess not their physical location. Digital reference apparently is seen as an important and beneficial tool for reference work, but by no means a solution.

In a survey conducted by 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. He found that a majority of the participants also felt that using electronic mail and the other technologies made reference more accessible and interesting, but also more challenging. 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.

Nilsen, 2004 in her study 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 electronic mail service again for future reference needs. Nilsen speculates that reference librarians and archivists, perhaps because of the more informal medium of electronic 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 electronic mail (and chat) as reference tools the issue of writing versus speaking. She found that, “virtual reference requires both the reference archivist and the user to type out their responses. This is time–consuming, and causes anxiety at both sides.

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. The view of archives in the era of global networking brings together archivists and archival patrons from all around the world and requires archivists to be proactive in taking the reference services as they have to be geared to individual audiences and they need to find suitable web presences such as the web 2. 0 technologies.

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