5 Questions for…Elizabeth Yakel

As many of you know by now, Dr. Elizabeth Yakel, Associate Professor of the University of Michigan’s School of Information, will be joining us in Savannah in November to present on the topic of Archival Metrics. She has kindly agreed to answer the following questions for inclusion in our outreach efforts. In addition to the following questions, you can find out more about Dr. Yakel’s teaching, research, and publications at her personal web page.

Five Questions…

How did you become an archivist?

I was an undergraduate at Brown University and thinking about going to library school but the fit was not quite right. Then, I got an internship at the John Hay Library and found my career. Working with the manuscripts there really combined my interest in libraries and organization with really great content. The first collection I processed was the Sarah Helen Whitman collection. She was a transcendentalist and prominent in the Providence social scene, having a role in the Athenaeum. But, her main claim to fame was that she was a fiancé of Edgar Allen Poe before she or perhaps her family made her break it off (who knows!).

What’s changed the most since you became an archivist?

Everything! There are two areas where I have seen the greatest change. Obviously, technology, particularly around the area of descriptive standards. The old debate “my records are unique so I could not possibly collect standardized data about my collections” has been put to rest.

Second, is the democratization of access. My students really find it hard to believe that archives and special collection routinely judged researchers and would turn away undergraduates, genealogists , etc. as unworthy to do research. I remember being looked at askance when entering an archives. While archives and special collections are still intimidating to some; I think overall that there has been a sea change in the attitude toward diverse users and it is much more positive today.

What’s stayed the same (for better or worse)?

The good: Archivists are the greatest people I know. They are committed and believe in the work they do. Many go to the max to help researchers (and when I say researchers I mean all users of archives) to locate the information they need or to answer their questions.

The bad: Archivists’ technological skills have not increased rapidly enough. We have also been slow to innovate technologically and ‘think outside the box’ in developing things, such as online finding aids systems.

How did you become interested in metrics?

I have long been interested in use and user needs and inserting the voice of the user into the archives. I have done a series of qualitative studies (interviews, observations), to identify the voice of the user and to better understand researchers and their research processes. For me, “Listening to users” has always been informative and interesting. The Archival Metrics project was designed to give practicing archivists a robust, cost- effective, time-efficient means of soliciting feedback from their researchers. The hope is that archivists will be able use Archival Metrics Toolkits to seek feedback from users in targeted areas and use these data to make decisions about improving those services and programs.

What advice do you have for new archivists or those interested in the profession?

Archives is a wonderful profession. I am still excited about the profession after all these years. There are interesting people, intellectual problems, and the possibilities. There is lots of room to make your mark. Archives has always benefited from new blood, new ideas, and new energy. It is easy to get involved in archival organizations (Society of Georgia Archivists, as well as the Society of American Archivists); organizations rely on volunteers and they have lots of opportunities to contribution as well as networking.

Finally, archives are about more than the old stuff. Don’t go into archives if you want to stay in a quiet place or process for the rest of your life. Interaction and communication skills are critical for interactions with patrons, but also articulating the importance of archives and manuscripts to funding agencies, administrators of the larger organizations, the general public or to talk with related professionals about archival services sand functions: programmers, interface designers, librarians, etc. Technologies, such as Web 2.0, are also changing the relationships between archivists and users. Taken together, the next generation of archivists needs to be outward looking, extroverted, and excited about connecting people to collections.

We thank Dr. Yakel for her contribution to the SGA blog and very much look forward to her presentation at the 40th Anniversary Celebration and Conference. Hope to see you there!

* Image courtesy of the University of Michigan’s School of Information website.

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