Information Literacy and Archives

October is both American Archives Month and National Information Literacy Awareness Month. Keeping that in mind, I thought I’d address these issues before October ends. Really, I should have written this sooner.American Archives Month

Last year, two of my first posts on this blog addressed information literacy. “Modern Reference = Information Literacy” demonstrated how information literacy skills can be taught one-on-one at the reference desk. In short, explaining every step of the search process and checking for comprehension allows for basic skills to be taught. “Why Information Literacy is Important” pointed out how information literacy supports both life long learning and independence. In both posts, the The Association of College and Research Library’s (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards were discussed in relation to the post.

The highlight of those posts could be summed up in this quote from “Modern Reference:”

The idea here is that by showing the patron every step we took, they will follow along and learn how to locate material for themselves. Then next time they visit the reference desk, they can let us know what he/she has already tried. However, we must also keep the patron engaged. There are many ways to do this, from the patron volunteering search terms and picking a database to letting them select the material they desire from the lists. Yes, the former may lead to a bad set of search results, but then you can point out ways that search could be made better and retry the search. These also make great teachable moments in Information Literacy.

And this one from the conclusion of “Important:”

Information Literacy skills for locating information can be used to locate books or articles on the subject so one can learn more. No longer does one have to rely exclusively on a librarian, teacher, or other source. Think of it like learning to read for the first time! Before you completely relied on others for information, but after learning the skill you gained the independence to seek information yourself!

In October, 2012, my post entitled “Humans Can Be Finding Aids Too” was written to honor American Archives Month. In it, I discussed how a collection’s processing archivist learned the contents to the point they are more familiar with the collection than they are truly able to express in the finding aid. As I wrote in that post:

The collection’s processing archivist or transcriber also becomes a finding aid of sorts. Why? They have to read through the whole collection to gather the knowledge to create the written finding aid and it’s index terms. That archivist will be the one who can best determine if something may exist that is not listed on the written aid. That archivist will be the one who is best capable of recognizing a particular handwriting or the subject of an unknown photograph in the collection. They also learn to recognize the patterns in letters, whether it be tone or content, to determine which person included in the collection wrote an unsigned letter.

I went on to describe how this was true with two collections I worked with.

Keeping these ideas in mind (and I would still recommend at least glancing at the three mentioned posts), I thought I’d add a little about information literacy skills in archives. I thought this would be a perfect way to address both themes.

  • Archivists can help users new to archives just like librarians can help their patrons. Thus, an important information literacy skill that can be learned is how to read and use finding aids. They are divided into sections, often including a summary of the collection and people mentioned within and an item list (usually by folder, not item).
    • Additionally, if one does not know who to handle fragile material, archivists can teach that too. While not a true information literacy skill, knowing this can help preserve the documents for future patrons to learn from.
  • Just like with a database search, have search terms in mind to hunt for in a finding aid. Unless you are working with a finding aid database, such as ArchiveGrid, know you will have to scan aids individually for terms. Depending on the institution, the aids may be online or you may have to request print copies.
    • To locate original material, don’t forget to check a book’s bibliography. Why? If archival material was used, it will list the institution and collection (and perhaps even collection and/or file numbers). The same trick also works to discover other books written on a subject. This trick itself is a good information literacy skill to have!
  • Realize it is possible to be even more overwhelmed when working with archival material that with secondary sources. This means it is extremely important to know the extent of information you need when researching and to effectively access the needed information. The sense of overwhelming comes from the vast amount of unpublished material to sift through. It all may be very interesting, but not directly relevant to the topic, thus be careful not to stray.
  • And remember the old card catalogs? If not, ask an older family member. Many archives still use these for an index to cross reference multiple collections on the same or similar topics and to track mentions of individuals across multiple collections. If needed, archivists can help teach a researcher how to use these too. Why is this the case? Many smaller archives simply lack the funds or personnel (or both) to make this information digitally available (even if offline).

Does anyone have any questions? Or perhaps something to add?

For next week, library programming for seniors. I had planned that post for today, but I realized I really needed to address the above issues before October ended.


3 thoughts on “Information Literacy and Archives

  1. Pingback: Information Literacy and Archives | Public Libr...

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