Can I come back??? Archival Outreach through the reference interview

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe reference interactions at a local college’s archives and special collections. Unfortunately, for archivists in training such as myself or for new practitioners there is scant professional literature that analyzes the reference interview in an archival setting.

During my observation, I encountered a college student who approached the reference desk in the archives and initially wanted to see “any minutes for the Senate or Student Government Association” at the college in order to introduce these historical documents to current members at meetings.

The archivist asked if she was interested in any specific aspect of the minutes, without listing possibilities. The student responded that anything from the “last century” would be sufficient. The archivist then sought the advice of another staff member, while the student waited at one of the researcher stations. Without consulting the student, the second staff member looked through a binder with a list of student record groups and campus organizations. The archivist working the reference desk then went back to the student and again tried to probe further to better understand the patron’s needs.

The patron responded: “I want to look at minutes from the period when student took over College Hall in protest of the apartheid in South Africa.” The archivist brought this information back to the other staff member and they determined the patron was interested in the 1986 campus demonstration. The archivist then retrieved the materials. In Stephanie Brown’s article “The Reference Interview: Theories and Practice,” she addresses this common occurrence and emphasized the importance of determining “the patron’s real information need.” This reference interaction illustrated the importance of involving the patron in the research process to better understand the true inquiry.

I found the experience of observing this reference transaction particularly telling. Certainly, knowledge of the repository’s collections can determine the quality of the suggested materials or the monitored referral. Unfortunately, scant information exists in archival literature that analyzes or suggests methods or best practices for improving archival reference interactions. Nor do national or regional conferences seem to address this issue. I believe in order to reduce the 66% of incorrect responses given to reference queries more practitioners must share their positive and negative experiences so we can all learn how to become better service providers.

Most eye opening for me, when leaving the archive, the student timidly approached the archivist and asked “Is it ok for me to come back every week to use other documents???” The archivist assured her with enthusiasm and a resounding “Yes, of course!” Clearly, we need to do a better job of de-mystifying the archives, so researchers don’t have to ask such a question or feel un-welcomed at their school’s repository.

I believe the reference interview is a great opportunity to help researchers, especially those new to an archive better understand what the repository can offer and that both the staff and materials are available in most cases, for all users, not just “serious scholars.”

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