Friday, February 19, 2010

A is for ????

How do you define Access (as in Reference, Access and Outreach)?

During the breakout discussions at SAA, this question came up for the RAO mission discussion and it's come up in several email conversations. Do we have a clear enough definition of access to keep the word in our title?

While I'm writing this in part because all the RAO board members have committed to writing blog entries, I really interested in the question and generating some comments.

A recent opportunity on my campus to be part of a multi-disciplinary panel series around the concept of memory (how different disciplines define and work with it), I was reflecting on the inherent politics of archives - who gets to control information --what is gathered and who has access? Those questions generated a fair amount of interest from historians and psychologists.

But are they of interest to the members of our Section? What is your definition of access? If you were to design a workshop around access, what would the content be?
Is it about who gets to use materials? and what barriers still exist or or being created with digital access?
or addressing physical barriers (ADA compliance issues)?
Is it about description - generating more access points, more subject headings?

How does it relate to or differ from Reference and Outreach - is it already implicit in those activities?

I'll add my reflections in a later post, but I want to start with questions and the conviction that RAO members will want to chime in on these questions - so hit that comment button and share your thoughts and definitions and experiences!

Jan Blodgett


  1. In addition to physical barriers, we should consider intellectual and social barriers. How do we - in the very acts of arranging and describing - mystify records, the past, etc.? I don't think we as a profession can say, "We're not interested in ____" if historians, psychologists, social scientists, humanities scholars, artists, students, and other stakeholders are interested in it. If we're not paying attention, we become irrelevent. We need to learn to speak their language. Even if we disagree, we should be speaking with the same vocabulary.

  2. I think I was ready to write off access - thinking of it mainly as legal access, and being of the opinion that this is decided at the acquisition phase, not by reference staff. But in subsequent discussions, I am seeing that there is definitely a reference angle to enhancing other aspects of access to archives.

  3. Jenny raises an important point - The terms we use can hide materials from researchers. One issue I keep debating is when and whether to use "Minority" in subject headings for photographs. Davidson was once male only - if we don't use women or coed and if we don't use minority for non-white students, we make those images hard to find. But those headings imply an ongoing norm that relegates women and minorities to being newcomers decades after they are part of the community. We've gone to using qualifiers for all students - students -men, students-women, basketball-men's, basketball-women's, etc. -so we don't create social barriers even as we seek to make images more visible.