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FAQs: Why do we need archivists? Everything is online!

There’s two parts to this question, and the quick response to both is: it depends! It depends on your question and the depth and the breadth and the topic itself. So let’s take a closer look at some data that might change the assumptions of “everything I need is online and I don’t need to talk to archivists” to the view that “maybe everything I need isn’t online and maybe the archivists can help me.”

Here’s the really long response:

Both the assumptions of everything being online and archivists aren’t needed for researchers to get what they want isn’t really supported by our data for the Archives.

First of all, only a fraction of a percent of the materials in this Archives are online or are sufficiently summarized in online resources that they could be used in lieu of actually looking at the material itself. For many in-depth questions that would bring somebody to primary source documentation like the materials we hold, online sources are not going to provide a comprehensive view of the topic. For example, we have approximately 22,000 images from our collection digitized and (somewhat) searchable on the Alaska’s Digital Archives.

One of the many photos we have on the Alaska’s Digital Archives that has “unidentified” in the description. We know what kind of helicopter it is thanks to somebody who looked it up, but we don’t know who the person is or where the photo was taken. To see what bits we do and don’t know about this specific photograph: https://vilda.alaska.edu/digital/collection/cdmg13/id/8162/rec/3 If you know anything about what is depicted in this image that isn’t in the online record, please let us know!

That level of identification aside, we have millions of photographs in our holdings, most of which are not described at item level.

So if, for example, the research question was regarding the construction and use of kayaks as represented in photographs and other imagery of kayaks in Alaska, a search of our holdings on the Alaska’s Digital Archives would only come up with 53 images. This would hardly provide any researcher with a comprehensive or statistically reliable set of materials from which they could conduct their research. And we’re just one archives among many archives and cultural organizations in Alaska, many of whom might have materials related to that topic, many of whom have a smaller online presence than we do or perhaps no online presence at all. And that’s just photographs. We have 97 documents accessible through the Digital Archives. When you compare those numbers to the 8000+ cubic feet of material in our vault (1 bankers box equals 1 cubic foot) and nearly 20 terabytes (and growing daily) of digital materials on our server, it becomes even more evident that not everything is online or can be accessed without interaction with an archivist in some way.

One of the kayak photos in the Alaska’s Digital Archives. But we still don’t know the names of anybody in the photo. According to the caption, the photo was taken near Hooper Bay. Glenn H. Bowersox papers

The need for archivist interaction  is particularly true of material held by Archives since given the security and preservation demands of the materials we hold. Even for the nearly 20 TB of digital materials currently in our holdings, most of those are not available online because of a variety of constraints upon us, including the costs of software and database support robust enough to provide good online access to the materials; rights including cultural rights and legal rights; and privacy limitations which do not allow us to put just everything on the open web even if we had the funding to do so. We have additional info about digital materials and online access in a different FAQ: What about digital materials? and in a guest post by one of our project archivists called What they don’t tell you about digitization projects.

And following up on that for all our materials: there’s a ton of what folks like to call “invisible labor” involved in preserving archival material and making it available. Invisible labor isn’t truly invisible of course, it just means that often people aren’t aware of it. For example, our collections don’t just magically hop from somebody’s basement/attic/garage/office to nicely labeled preservation quality boxes on our shelves with description posted on our website.

A very small portion of a 500+ cubic foot collection in its original home basement location.

And some of the slightly less organized sections of that basement collection.

We work with donors to discuss what we might take in. We work with the materials to often rehouse them, yes, and to gather information to write our guides to collections. This can be hugely time consuming depending on the size of the collection or how well organized or described it was when it walked in the door. We engage in outreach efforts to promote what we have so people know it even exists! We write reports about what we do. We do the budgetary work to plan for and prioritize what funding we have for supplies. We digitize materials. We make decisions about how description gets done and more often than not, have to rethink those decisions based on feedback from the people represented in the collections and users of the materials. We write. A lot. We interact with people. A lot.

All of that takes a lot of labor and time. Here’s one example on the outreach side: we did two open houses in 2022. Preparing for each of those took us about 20 hours of labor to set up materials, select what was out for display, and to clean up afterward and get everything back in its place. About 40 hours of work for what was, in essence, about 2-3 hours worth of open house time. Was the open house time worth it? No question, yes! Did it represent a time cost that may not have been obvious? Oh, yes.

But back to how much stuff we have available for research. The volume of materials we currently hold, that 8,000+ cubic feet and 20 TB, might not be a compelling argument to some folks as to the need for it to exist or the need for people to access it. I’ll admit we have some materials of dubious research utility in our holdings. However, utility is determined by the nature of the question being asked. And if we look more closely at that, during the 2021-2022 academic year, the Archives fielded 182 individual in-depth researcher requests from 196 researchers for a total of 675 researcher hours over that time. Those research questions included several researchers gathering evidence for a federal court case on chemical exposure; at least two researchers–one local, one not–working on a project about Anchorage’s Olympic bids, undergraduate UAA students researching the history of English language use in Alaska;  representatives of the Anchorage municipal government researching the history of borough consolidation, a graduate student researching UAA’s practices regarding Alaska Native student education, multiple representatives of museums tracking provenance of objects in their collections that were obtained from anthropological digs, researchers gathering data on ANCSA related collections for the creation of a nearly 1,000 page annotated bibliography (which has resulted in additional researchers coming in to look at materials based on the summary descriptions included), attorneys researching the codification of the Alaska criminal code for use in current criminal defense and prosecution, and a descendant of Palmer colonists researching her family history. And so many more! That’s just a small representation of the questions we’ve fielded in just one year that have resulted in in-house use of our collections by researchers (which again, requires interaction with an archivist or two).

In addition to the on-site time, 10.75 of those hours were virtual appointments, either with archivists working directly with researchers over Zoom that involved suspending a camera over collection materials (or playback of a/v material) so the researcher could access the materials at a distance. That’s not a big number, but it’s steadily growing. 142 of those 675 hours were spent in direct researcher interaction between the archivists here and researchers that happened either over the phone or via email. Some of that, yes, was with people who might have found what they were looking for online if they knew those sources existed and how to find them, but even there, we have a role to play in educating researchers in the research process. That’s education not everybody gets through other means.

Also that 675 researcher hours? Represents an increase of 65% over the preceding year. You might say, yeah, sure, but COVID. You weren’t open the previous year. We were only closed to in-house research for about three and a half months and that was in the early days of the pandemic (March-June 2021). And we still provided access via email/phone/etc. Even that year didn’t represent much of a drop in access for us compared to the preceding year.

The AY2021-2022 count of 675 hours is our second highest researcher hours count since 2007 when we started tracking these numbers. And the only year that has beaten it so far was AY2016-2017 when for one full semester, we had 15-20 students in an anthropology course coming in twice weekly for between 2-6 hours each. I have to say, it’s clear by our use stats, and our increasing use stats, that while more and more research material might be accessible online, it’s certainly not represented by a corresponding drop in our researcher interaction time! So that’s all a really long way of getting around to this point: based on our data, no not everything everybody needs for their research is online and sometimes archivists are still necessary for researchers.

If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to research something that would bring you into contact with the wonderful resources we hold in the Archives, perhaps that will change for you too at some point! Please get in touch if you have any questions. We’ll do our best to assist you.

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