One of our readings for Archives and Manuscripts was “The Metadata Is the Interface” by Jennifer Schaffner. Schaffner argues that studies and research done on how scholars use archives suggest archivists need to modify their practices to fit the internet era. She suggests, using the research, that most modern users don’t discover archives and their materials through traditional methods such as finding aids, but rather through internet searches on platforms such as google. Rather than focusing on building catalogues, finding aids, and writing elaborate descriptions, Schaffner proposes archivists instead focus on using metadata to make their materials more discoverable to users. She notes that the relationship between archivist and scholars is changing from archivists directly guiding researchers to relevant sources to archivists making their archives easier to discover.
Schaffner focuses on what the research says and makes recommendations based on the results, but leave me wondering: why have scholars changed their research patterns so much? Certainly the rise of search engines and instant information has made an impact, but it doesn’t seem like that alone would be enough to change research methods so quickly and drastically. It’s possible history education has changed along with technology, and there is much less emphasis now on teaching undergrad history majors the hard skills of how to discover and use archives. Without that emphasis, they turn towards the fastest, easiest method they know—a search engine.
The article also reminded me of a usability test I took part in for a web archives. Many of the things Schaffner describes from the studies were very similar to what I did—for example, starting off immediately with a keyword search in the website’s search bar. As I got to know the system, I did find the subject indexes and other features useful, but I imagine most researchers under time pressure would leave the site before fully understanding those features.