A report on the American Historical Association Conference

by Liz Parks, MLIS Day

If you missed the American Historical Association (AHA) conference that was held January 6-9 in Seattle, you missed a fabulous opportunity to find out how librarians and historical researchers are working together in organizing information for more efficient access. The American Association for History and Computing, a subgroup of the AHA, chaired several interesting presentations related to the marriage of history and computer technology. I attended only these presentations, although there were many other sessions as well.

The conference got off to an energetic start with the latest information on a new collaborative project coming out of the University of Alabama and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This recently compiled collection of over 5000 publisher's bindings is set to go live in March, 2005, and was highlighted by Jessica Lacher-Feldman, Pubic and Outreach Services Coordinator for Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Alabama. The project is entitled Publishers' Bindings Online, 1815-1930: The Art of Books and it will bring to the forefront a new area of scholarship related to special collections librarianship. The project has involved digitizing an amazing collection of 19th century decorative trade bindings that have a significant place in American history. Images could include book spine, cover, back, end sheets, and details, depending on the item. The collection will benefit a long list of users, including scholars and researchers, students, and practitioners. It will contain an extensive glossary of descriptive terms and will be searchable by such elements as designer, publisher, materials, subject headings, theme, place of publication, and descriptive elements (stamping, tooling, cloth, etc.).

After the Bindings presentation, the conference suddenly took a turn away from the "wow" to the more "oh, no, what do we do to solve these problems?" Several of the presentations focused on how researchers use finding aids and problems associated with them. A presentation by Kate Cruikshank, Political Papers Specialist at the Lily Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, highlighted several examples of finding aids for political papers from different libraries across the country. There is little standardization among them, to the disappointment and frustration of researchers. She cited finding aids containing hundreds of pages with no way to search them. Other aids provide a search box, but it is found at the back of the finding aid. She called on the audience for comments and suggestions for improving the finding aids. One obvious comment made by an iSchool student: "put the search box on the front page!"

Naomi Nelson, Director of Archives for the University Libraries, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, summed up finding aids as a benefit to archivists for storage of information, but for historians trying to use them there are still problems. Her research showed that hierarchies, the length of the aid, controlled vocabulary, Boolean searching, and display options are all problems that continue to befuddle researchers. She also cited labeling and description of photos as a problem. Historians want more descriptive titles. Finally, they need to know how to cite finding aids as a source for information.

Director of the Mystic Seaport Museum, CT, Paul O'Pecko, emphasized in his presentation the need to be able to access finding aids directly from the WWW, and not through a "convoluted" OPAC system. Researchers could better use sources of information if they were convenient, relevant, and time saving. He also suggested "federated searching," or searching many finding aids simultaneously to bring faster results.

Seemingly on the right path with Pacific Northwest finding aids, Janet Hauck, Archivist at Whitworth College, Spokane, WA, provided an overview of the Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA) project, which is an online database of more than 2,200 guides to collections on numerous topics in Northwest History. She discussed its value as a method for seeking out primary and secondary source information for researchers of historical collections and the value of keyword searching for historians searching NWDA finding aids. Ms. Hauck also pointed out the benefits of using Encoded Archival Description (EAD) as a standard, which it has been adopted by NWDA for developing finding aids.

The second day of the conference addressed issues of a different nature. Jason Kneip, Archives and Special Collections Librarian at Auburn University, Montgomery, AL, initiated an interesting discussion by introducing a time capsule project initiated by his undergraduate students. As students suggested items for the capsule, it became more and more obvious to him that a large percentage of our records are being stored in the unstable technical environment. Records that are needed for historical verification would not survive life in a time capsule for even 10 years, versus print versions that have survived centuries. He cited digital cameras holding images that will never be printed and saved. Likewise, CDs cannot be used for permanent record storage. Historians of the future, he hypothesized, will look back at this time period and find a huge gap in information - no records and no identity.

This discussion segued nicely into a presentation by Kathy Biddick, Professor of History, Fellow of Institute, Nanovic Institute for European Studies, University of Notre Dame, IN. She detailed seals and signings of the medieval documents and how they compare to their digital counterparts of present day. Concerns were expressed for digital seals; how long will they last and for whom are they applicable? What happens when important decisions are made through email and the hard drive is erased when a new employee takes over? One possible solution is to move from the "print" culture to the "print out" culture, but then there are storage issues…and who will file these records? I was surprised to learn that NARA keeps only 5% of the records it receives from the government. One last interesting comment I heard was that archivists do not manage artifacts anymore; they are too busy creating new ones.

As I reflect back on the presentations, it was a worthwhile and enlightening experience. Presenters raised a number of important issues surrounding access and preservation of records for historical researchers. But let us not forget in all of this discussion about making searching easier for historians, it is the role of the librarian to be the intermediary between the search and the user. The librarian is the ultimate finding aid in any searching situation and researchers would benefit by using this invaluable, personalized resource to its fullest.


Contact the Silverfish
Page last updated: February 7, 2004