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Friday, 10 June 2011

I'm at the Berks!

That is, the triennial Berkshire Conference on the History of Women: fifteenth this year, being held at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I have previously attended in 1996 (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), 2002 (University of Connecticut at Storrs), 2005 (The Claremont Colleges, CA), 2008 (University of Minnesota at Minneapolis).

So far I have attended my first panel, a rather envy-making panel by archivists from the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College on 'Teaching the Archives' and how they work with students to introduce them to the archives and how they are used and how valuable it is for users to be able to interact with an archivist.

While there is no doubt that latterly I seem to have been able to give more time to cataloguing, with consequent sense of achievement, I do feel that certain changes in workplace practice mean that the archivists no longer have routine contact with readers and that we lose valuable educational opportunities thereby, since there is no formal mechanism for user education apart from sessions arranged by specific tutors or course supervisors.

The development of online access to finding aids is a great boon, but for individuals unacquainted with the way archives work they may be something of a false friend, by detaching specific items from their embedded context within particular collections. And, as Maida Goodwin made a strong point of saying, archives are not like Google, you don't get a result by asking a specific question but by looking at the sources and being guided by them.

I am not sure how one gets round this. Interaction with users came through being involved in a number of routine operational tasks, and in many cases there was no real need for extensive interaction or guidance. Also, many users now get in touch in advance for advice. But there are still those who are perhaps floundering or missing sources that might be relevant. I do sometimes get the impression that students are not effectively briefed by tutors or supervisors about primary sources and the differences between them, and how to approach them.

Obviously, it is also important to make the holdings actually available by getting them catalogued, flagged in sources guides, noted in blog posts, etc. There are a number of repetitive queries that come up that really can be answered adequately by reference to a thematic guide or with a form response or simply by explaining how to use the online catalogue. But sometimes, particularly with novice users, a bit more is required. Not that novice users (or even quite experienced users) realise that this is desirable.

Besides attending this panel, I attended the opening reception and met various old acquaintances and made a few new ones.

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