When It Comes to Born-Digital, How Well Do We Know Our Users?

By Wendy Hagenmaier, with insights and inspirations from the Understanding Users for Access Hackfest Team

This post is the eighth in a bloggERS series about access to born-digital materials.

What do we know about the needs, motivations, and experiences of users of born-digital archival materials?

"Computing laboratories," courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives via DPLA
“Computing laboratories,” courtesy of Georgia Tech Archives via DPLA

The archival profession has been processing and preserving born-digital collections for years, but as we begin to engage in more conversations about designing solutions for providing access to those materials, it seems we need to ask ourselves how much we actually know about what our users want. Or perhaps, how much we don’t know. In an era of user-centered design, what do archivists and their IT allies still need to learn about users of born-digital materials in order to engineer intuitive mechanisms for providing access to those collections? And how can we go about learning those unknowns? Can we gather data that might help anticipate future access needs or encourage more people to discover and reuse our born-digital materials?

These are the complex and captivating questions the members of the Understanding Users for Access Hackfest Team have been tackling since the 2015 SAA Annual Meeting. The Team’s mission was to develop a proposal for a long-term collaborative project that would empower archivists to better understand users of born-digital materials, and would thereby help to address current obstacles to born digital access. Archivists from around the country self-selected to form the Team, and Elizabeth Keathley, owner of Atlanta Metadata Authority, volunteered to serve as our Leader. As a member of the research group behind the Born-Digital Access in Archival Repositories study, I served as the Team’s Researcher. We started by exploring data and themes related to understanding users, gathered through the Born-Digital Access in Archival Repositories study. For example, two anonymized quotes we examined from the study:

“We’ve done a number of usability studies with our finding aids. But I don’t […] know that anybody’s done this yet with born-digital. And part of the barrier might be that not a lot of places are making it available. Or we’ve just not seen the demand for it. I know of other institutions where they already have reading room access to born-digital materials, but nobody’s asking for it, you know. [Our software developer was] very reluctant to do any sort of real development without knowing what it was that users wanted. So […] we definitely see that it’s a need.”

“I would like to know what people are actually using, or interested in using, how […] they know our material exists, and what’s driving them to make their requests in the first place? […] If they are working on an annotated copy of a literary work, knowing that we actually do maybe need to provide them access to as close to original Word documents as possible for literary manuscripts, versus whether they just need access to a fixed form of the document that we could just port to PDF […]. So knowing both their research question and also the larger project they are working on would certainly be helpful.”

Rachael Dreyer, Head of Research Services for Special Collections at the Pennsylvania State University, and Katie Pierce Meyer, Humanities Librarian for Architecture & Planning at the University of Texas at Austin, documented the Team’s discussion as we identified our research questions and debated various strategies for our project proposal.

In the months following SAA, the Team worked together to articulate and iterate over a proposal for a “Community-Wide Mixed-Methods Needs Assessment of Users of Born-Digital Archives.” We invite you to read and comment on our proposal, and to join us in implementing the ideas it outlines.

As described in the proposal, the roughly three-year-long Needs Assessment would include:

  • the development of mixed-methods research instruments to explore the needs, backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets of users of born-digital archives;
  • a community wide data gathering effort;
  • a rigorous analysis of the data;
  • and the publication of findings and next steps for improving born-digital access.

The insights gained through the Needs Assessment would empower practitioners to design interfaces for access that are tailored to user needs, to communicate user needs more effectively to software developers, and to provide improved access services to users. The study would also provide opportunities for busy practitioners to participate in important research in a manageable but meaningful way, and for the community to work together to ensure that archives remain agile, relevant, and ready to meet the needs of 21st-century users.

Products of the Needs Assessment might include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • A website that would act as a hub for information about the project as well as results gathered from it. The website would provide access to project documentation and links to the research instruments, scrubbed data set, and reports (hosted in an open access repository).
  • A web form to serve as the interview script and notes document (hosted by an IRB-certified service, such as a university’s instance of Qualtrics).
  • An online survey (also hosted by an IRB-certified service).
    • Interview and survey questions would be broad enough to apply to a wide variety of institutional contexts yet specific enough to gather useful data to describe user needs and experiences. They could be used before, during, or after accessing born-digital materials–this would be determined by the research team during the first six months of the project.
  • Instructions and training materials for using the interview and survey instruments.
  • Open access, (possibly peer-reviewed) published analysis of the results of the study, along with an anonymized version of the data set. The analysis could also include user personas and user stories created from the generalized data from the study.

The project team could include:

  • Project Leads: An IRB-certified research team, composed of a diverse group of approximately 10 individuals with varying expertise and from several different institutions (archivists, software developers, user experience designers, PhD students, etc.).
  • Project Participants: Practitioners (ideally, at least 25) who opt-in to use the research instruments in their local institutions and contribute data to the project.

Additional details about proposed timeline, budget, dissemination and preservation plans, and sustainability strategy are available (and ready for comment!) in the proposal.

The Team hopes that results from the Needs Assessment would suggest next steps for improving born-digital access and could be cited in the future when archivists apply for further grant funding to expand access to born-digital materials. The research instruments could be revised for a second round of the study, which could be completed in approximately ten years, when many more archives will be providing access to born-digital materials. Results from the first and second rounds could be compared to track born-digital access over time.

Want to help? Let’s do this. We are seeking volunteers for a team that can make this Needs Assessment a reality. Please feel welcome to comment on the proposal and contact me if you’re interested in getting involved (wendy [dot] hagenmaier [at] library [dot] gatech [dot] edu).

Wendy Hagenmaier is the Digital Collections Archivist at the Georgia Tech Archives, where she develops policies and workflows for digital processing, preservation, and access. She received her M.S.I.S. with a focus on digital archives from the University of Texas at Austin. She is Vice President of the Society of Georgia Archivists, Chair of the SAA Issues and Advocacy Roundtable, and steering committee member for the SAA Electronic Records Section and Architectural Records Roundtable.

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