I have just been re-reading a recent report: The Metadata is the Interface: Better Description for Better Discovery of Archives and Special Collections, Synthesized from User Studies, Jennifer Schaffner, OCLC Research (2009).
Jennifer’s report is well worth reading. It manages that most admirable of goals: a succinct report full of useful and relevant information that summarises others’ findings. Therefore, it is quite difficult to summarise the content. However, I will draw out some of the observations and conclusions that I think are particularly worth highlighting.
- People want to discover information by themselves and at the network level, not the institutional level. Less mediation is a good thing.
- Archivists often focus on what collections consist of, which is at odds with researchers, who want to learn what collections are about.
- Subject access is rated highly by many users, though they may use keyword searching rather than structured terminology
- It is difficult to compare studies because of an inconsistent use of terminology
- Researchers prefer quality content, but above that they want more descriptions, even if they are minimal, in order to open up more archival content
- Some users prefer summary records, some prefer detail – from our user studies we cannot really draw conclusions as to which is preferred
- Successful discovery currently requires too much understanding from the researcher of what they are looking for before they even begin
- Archivists should give more thought to creating descriptions that are network friendly. Most people start their searches with Google.
- Archivists should give more thought to effective relevance ranking of search results
I thought it was also worth drawing out a few of the points made by Cory Nimer and J. Gordon Daines III in their report, What Do You Mean IT Doesn’t Make Sense? Redesigning Finding Aids from the User’s Perspective (Journal of Archival Organization, vol 6/4, Haworth Press 2008). Some of these points are made by others and the article references them in a literature review (apologies for not naming all those referenced). Nimer and Daines also explain their own project for The L. Tom Perry Special Collections delivery of online finding aids (not yet complete).
- Archivists should re-examine the principles that underpin archival arrangement and description and have more focus on user requirements so that online finding aids are more intuitive and easy to use
- Enabling user annotation would augment finding aids and may make them more intellectually accessible to a wider audience
- There is a significant divergence and a lack of consensus in archival display. The users that Nimer and Daines talked to showed a level of dissatisfaction with the entire approach to EAD display; they wanted more direct access to item-level descriptions
- Users want direct access to items but are unable to understand the descriptions without adequate context, so closer integration of context is important
- Terminology can cause some confusion but generally users are quick to understand words when they are used in context
We are looking to learn from these sorts of reports, case studies and user studies in order to improve the Archives Hub website. We already provide direct access to item-level descriptions, but our new interface will give a better indication of hierarchy and enable users to navigate from the item level up through the context of the collection. We plan to undertake more user requirements analysis over the coming year, to help us to make the Archives Hub a more intuitive and rewarding experience for a broader base of users.