About aschmuland

I'm head of Archives & Special Collections at the Consortium Library. I've been with A&SC since 2002, first as reference archivist, now as head of the department.

Alaska’s Digital Archives reference: one year in

Did you know? That email address on all of the Alaska’s Digital Archives pages goes to us! Alaska and Polar Regions Collections up at UAF handled the questions that came in for a long time, but last year we decided it was our turn to help out. We thought we’d be switching it between the founding partners every year (UAF, Alaska State Library Historical Collections, us) but we’ve been having such fun with it we’re not quite ready to turn it over to ASL yet.

We’re big on user tracking around here as you’ve probably noticed, so we’ve compiled one year’s worth of numbers from those reference type emails that came in between March 16, 2015 and March 15, 2016.

In that year we received 152 questions, and spent 17 hours and 35 minutes reading and responding to them.

But since we’re not content to just track time, we sorted the requests by what type of request they are. Within that 152 questions and 17 hours and 35 minutes, these are the types of questions we were fielding and how long they took:

Type of request Requests Time spent Avg time/question
Reference request about a specific item 43 4 hours, 10 minutes 6 minutes
Item(s) duplication request 31 3 hours, 24 minutes 6.5 minutes
Metadata addition 14 48 3.5 minutes
General reference question 58 9 hours, 15 minutes 10 minutes
Donation/sale offer 17 1 hour, 20 minutes 5 minutes
Appraisal request 1 5 minutes
Partnership request 1 10 minutes

As you might expect, we would never just leave you without an explanation of some of those question types. So what do we mean? And how useful are those time spent estimations, anyhow?

This is probably not a comprehensive listing of all of the requests we received from the Digital Archives email. It definitely doesn’t include any of the tech problems emails, which are handled by the Project Manager up at UAF. And we try to be pretty faithful about logging questions, but sometimes when it’s busy on the ref desk, stat tracking falls behind. So you can probably up those numbers a bit across the board. Also, these are bare bones estimations of our work reading the request and writing a response, it doesn’t reflect continuing work related to requests for specific partners. For example, if we receive an item duplication request through the Digital Archives email that is for one or more of our items, our time count here will just be for the original email: any time we spend on responding to it and explaining costs or access issues for our materials gets logged in our own reference tracking system. Also if somebody sends us information about one of the items that is up on the Digital Archives, the time we spend updating our Digital Archives metadata doesn’t get counted here.

As you can see by the average time per question, these usually aren’t very heavy-duty time-eaters for us. Usually it’s a pretty simple “thanks for the information” or “that image was posted by Partner A and here’s their contact information, you’ll need to follow up with them” or “We’re forwarding your request to Partner B who owns the item you’re asking about.” Turns out it’s the questions we get unrelated to the Digital Archives, that “general reference query” listed above, that usually takes the most time. Those are often questions like “I’m trying to find information about Event C, what can you tell me?” Usually those result in a little longer response about how people can do research on that topic with suggestions of resources they might use. As you might guess, we promote public libraries and interlibrary loan services a lot, especially for people who contact us that aren’t in Alaska.

Having done this work a little over a  year now, what surprises us? Not a lot, really. We know that a lot of people use the internet to search for whatever topic is of interest to them and don’t like to click on a lot of links. We also knew going in that most people don’t read everything we write with each item (and why would they?), but we occasionally wonder if there’s a way to encourage users to go to the partner-specific contact options available with each item instead of the main Contact Us button that sends the email to the project address. It’s an interesting design question: is there a way to encourage users who are interested in specific items on the Digital Archives to contact partners directly rather than emailing the main address and possibly delaying their response a little? Possibly not: the platform we’re using to present the Digital Archives, ContentDM, sometimes allows us to vary the way pages are presented, sometimes not.

As I said earlier, we’re really enjoying it. It’s fun to see a glimpse of the breadth of materials that are getting used on the Digital Archives and the types of information people are interested in. And we love those metadata addition contacts: sometimes we wonder how people find that old picture of their family member when we didn’t have any names associated with the photo, but we love to add the names and places in and we know that will make it easier for future viewers to find the photograph too.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of that: we posted this image about 10 years ago to the Digital Archives.

Entertainment_at_the_Governors_Picnic_1966All the caption said was Governor’s Picnic, Anchorage, 1966. The photo was taken by a local freelance journalist who took a lot of pictures that day, and didn’t write down the names of anybody in them. Since it was such a great photo, we put it up anyway and added in the Subject terms (women, saxophones, etc) and the location and date. Then a family member somehow came across it a few years later and emailed us with the names of the three women, Erica, Christine, and Valerie Jacobsson, daughters of Mildred and Carlie Jacobsson. How wonderful is that?

So you can probably see why we like answering these emails for the Digital Archives. We know from our own reference email account that a lot of people are using the Digital Archives for a lot of different reasons, but this just gives us a bigger picture of that use. We’re glad that so many people like the project as much as we do.