Capping Project
Traditional Versus Non Traditional Resources
Virtual Reference

Digital Reference Tools

Providing digital reference for historians is a complex task. On one hand, the goal must be to provide digital resources and tools that will enhance the search and research experience of the users; on the other, it must realize that attempting to replace and eliminate the traditional resources historians make use of, will likely not be successful. A successful digital reference system will allow digital tools and resources to co-exist beside the traditional and print resources. The digital tools may enhance the use of the traditional tools; eventually they may provide an alternative to the print resources. But making an effort to create a digital reference system that replaces traditional resources is neither feasible nor likely to attract the support of historians. Aden notes that digital reference must meet “the growing needs of our clients and make our services relevant to them” (28). Applying this to historians implies that any digital reference system must provide services that are significant to them. This means providing services that accommodate their information needs.

As discussed above, historians interviewed by Duff, Craig and Cherry, wanted access to digitized documents and effective online finding aids (71). Due to the immense costs of digitization, useful online finding aids are the more realizable goal. Historians highly value finding aids as a resource tool and creating effective online finding aids is vital to the success of any digital reference service for historians. Duff and Johnson list the main reasons historians value finding aids: they ‘orient historians to new collections,” they “provide context and background information for…research areas”, they ease historians’ “uncertainty” when using a new archives or collection and they “facilitate the finding of relevant documents” (493).

Clearly finding aids are an essential tool for historians and would be a crucial component of any digital reference system for historians users. Kessner points out that effective online finding aids would “facilitate” an “online information network” that would allow historians “to survey intensively a wide range of manuscript material prior to formal examination of the documents themselves”. The result would be a “more efficient, comprehensive and economical use of documentary evidence” (Kessner 39).

The creation of effective and efficient online finding aids would be an immense asset to the historian community. It would allow them to network archival information and access it online before visiting the archive and examining the documents. Historians would be able to conduct online searches and survey archival collections, saving them countless hours of searching. Online finding aids would not eliminate the need for searching in an archive; it would allow for more efficient searching and would allow historians to make better use of the time they do spend searching in the archives.

How can the information community create online finding aids that meet the needs of historians? Ian Anderson comments that at present finding aids are too “brief” and are designed to be used “in tandem with the insight and expertise of the archivist” (113). He states the necessity of creating an online archival system that is “part finding aid, part expert system, part intelligent agent able to conceptualize, mediate and tailor the information provided” (Anderson 114). Clearly, in order to meet historians’ needs, finding aids must reflect the knowledge and expertise of archivists. In order to become more in tune with historian information requirements, online finding aids must be able to be used independently of the archivist. The online finding aid should be efficient and effective enough that the historian can be able to use it from his or her personal computer, without having to contact the archivist. It should be able to adjust its retrieval strategy to meet the needs of each historian.

The requirements for the online finding aid are high; but efforts to meet those requirements will result in an information network of archival materials that will allow historians to be effective and efficient searchers of primary historical documents. Creating a sophisticated online finding aid that can perform high-level and intelligent searches is an essential component of digital reference.