Bringing Records to the Users

I've volunteered at the local National Archives branch for over a year now. Over this time I have gained the acute impression of lament over the dwindling number of researchers and members of the public who make the trip out to the archives to do research. Indeed, it is not uncommon for me to enter a virtually empty research room during my Thursday afternoon visits.

What is seldom spoken of, but is vitally central to the issue, is the instant information gratification that the general populace receives from their increasingly ubiquitous internet connections. The reams of information available through Google, or the convenience of accessing from home (instead of for free at the archives), keeps them at home and only adds insult to the injury of fewer patrons.

NARA is not alone in this lament. Günter Waibel of OCLC recently spoke of it in a Hanging Together blog post covering the IMLS WebWise Conference, where he reposts a quote by Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress that rather eloquently sums up the issue:

“What I think our challenge is, it is not enough for us to create the perfect finding system, we know from all the user studies that individuals, who are looking for information, go directly to the open web, and our marvelous catalogues are not getting used. We have to find ways to take our content and the metadata and move that content to the open web.”

NARA relies on an online system called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) to catalog and describe its considerable physical holdings. This system was derived from an earlier prototype called NARA's Archival Information Locator (NAIL), which primarily contained images and other non-textual surrogates. Each of these systems are of late-1990's vintage – a Web lifetime ago – and, quite frankly, the user interface shows it. One of my contacts at NARA once stated that the government seems to be about a decade behind when it comes to information management, and in this case it seems true enough.

Granted, the scope of these projects is monumental and one cannot expect them to be updated at Web speed to, say, incorporate some of the more useful “Web 2.0” principles. However, given the exodus of potential patrons to full-text search engines, there is a particularly devastating truth hidden behind the aging ARC code. To paraphrase Marcum, we need to take our content and metadata to where the users are. As it turns out, some informal research provides a striking illustration of this need.

One evening I found myself looking through the Web site of the Northwest Digital Archives, a group of education, government, and private archives across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I was curious about a number of things, but not the least of which was the potential for sharing finding aids for holdings at NARA's Seattle branch with the NWDA. This led me to search and browse some of the NWDA finding aids available via their search engine.

After browsing some of their EAD-encoded and HTML transformed finding aids, it occurred to me that this method of presentation very likely exposed the finding aids to Web agents acting on behalf of search engines like Google. I immediately wondered if the same was true of ARC and set out to verify.

Google exposes a number of advanced search parameters that can, among other things, limit the results to one site or domain. Using this feature, I performed a search for the number of records returned by Google for the NWDA and ARC respectively (click these links to see for yourself or reference the images below). The results are shocking: on the order of 3000 results from the NWDA, most of which are finding aids that have been full-text indexed; but only one result for ARC – its main search page!

Search - NWDA: A Google search result for the Northwest Digital ArchivesFigure 1: A Google search result for the Northwest Digital Archives

Search - ARC: A Google search for ARC recordsFigure 2: A Google search for ARC records

I should not need to explain this to you, but the point is clear: the catalog information about holdings of the members of the NWDA are being seen by the masses searching Google, while not one of the multitudinous ARC records is being seen outside NARA's domain. Although seasoned researchers will know to go directly to the NARA site to search their holdings, the well-meaning masses will not. But which is easier: changing millions of people's Web searching habits, or altering an application to get the data to where those millions of people already are?

Fortunately, this example was very clearly understood by NARA staff at the Seattle branch, and apparently also with the staff in D.C. Within weeks of my demonstration I heard reports of changes being made to ARC to allow direct links to the catalog records, and a plan to phase in search engines by transferring indexes to these links directly to the major search engines. Regardless of where the impetus came from or what plans were already in motion, I am happy to know that progress is being made.

I've been working with the marketing sector as a programmer for over nine years. The companies I have worked for have specialized in Web and online marketing, and, although I have no direct role in marketing planning, I have of necessity become intimately familiar with such concepts as ROI and performance tracking, sales cycles, and lead/customer database development. Because of this exposure, the notion of how to reach people online is somewhat intuitive to me, but that knowledge is not yet widely dispersed among the archival profession. From this example, the intersection of Web marketing and archives seems to be an interesting space for me to explore.