User Centered Collaboration for Archival Discovery (Part 2)

By the SAA 2017 Session 403 Team: James Bullen, Alison Clemens, Wendy Hagenmaier, Adriane Hanson, Emilie Hardman, Carrie Hintz, Mark Matienzo, Jessica Meyerson, Amanda Pellerin, Susan Pyzynski, Mike Shallcross, Seth Shaw, Sally Vermaaten, Tim Walsh

Insights from Discussion Groups

  • In discussion group 1, we went through a few different discussion areas. We had an interesting conversation about how to navigate using a user-centered approach. We talked about a) how to balance changing user needs professional practices; b) the difficulty of being user-centered within an MPLP paradigm; c) the contrasting difficulty of being *too* detailed in our description, and that getting in the way of discovery; and d) shifting our reference model so that public services staff are more facile with using finding aids and assisting users in navigating minimal description.
  • Discussion group 4 began by discussing the range of concerns relating to the state of discovery at the participants’ institutions. Everyone recognized that their current discovery systems for archives were not ideal, and there was a common interest across the group in centralizing discovery within an institution or consortium. The group also spent a significant amount of time discussing specific known issues to implementing a new discovery system, including issues related to system integration, the reality that information about archival materials is spread across multiple platforms, and that abrupt transitions across platforms were jarring for users. We also discussed challenges to undertaking user-centered design and collaborative work, which included barriers related to administrative support, systemic IT issues, lack of knowledge of user experience design methodologies, and resources for these projects.
  • Discussion Group 5 began by discussing archival discovery at participants’ institutions.  There was a wide range of strategies being used to facilitate archival discovery, but none of the participants were happy with their current state.  In most cases, the discovery systems were too deeply connected to library technologies like the OPAC, or utilized static html websites.  Participants were frustrated that their systems didn’t meet potential users where they were (the open web) and didn’t provide desired opportunity for users to find materials or more effectively use the finding aid data.   Participants saw flaws in their systems that negatively impact users, and all saw user testing as something that should be done when designing and maintaining archival discovery systems.  There was, however, some concern that user testing is resource intensive and that many archives don’t have the tools or training to do it effectively and that, while we feel good about our attempts to include users on product development we don’t have a good sense of what the return on that investment actually is in most cases.  
  • Discussion group 6 first considered how to go from having good description in multiple tools to having an effective user experience searching across all of those tools.  A user centered design approach was appealing, but there was concern about lacking the staff time and expertise to take this on, as well as challenges of knowing the demographics of your users well enough to establish meaningful user personas and being able to prioritize across different user groups’ needs. Collaboration and sharing the work seemed to be the answer to lacking staff time and expertise, although formal collaborative efforts do require overhead to manage the logistics of the collaboration. We discussed ways to have more effective collaboration, such as sharing the results of our work (like user personas) online rather than writing journal articles, making room for smaller institutions in the conversation, and allowing for different levels of time commitment and expertise within a collaboration. Roles for institutions without technical expertise include providing feedback or replicating a test at your own institution using another institution’s method.


Working on a user-centered design project for your archives? Have questions about the topic? Chime in via the comments below!

One thought on “User Centered Collaboration for Archival Discovery (Part 2)

  1. Kathy Marquis January 16, 2018 / 3:31 pm

    I wanted to comment on the concerns about “the difficulty of being user-centered within an MPLP paradigm.” MPLP means determining the most appropriate level of processing warranted by the collection; it doesn’t minimal processing only; that’s just one of the choices you can make. However, if you have chosen the option of minimal processing, but then discover that user interest is high and impeded by minimal access points, you can decide at that point to give the collection more detailed description.

    The RAO Section has a Navigating Minimal Processing and Public Services Working Group which has been addressing this concern, as well. You can read their reports at:

    I see a lot of potential for collaboration between the Electronic Records Section and Reference, Access and Outreach Section here!


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