Trudy H. Peterson delivered her presidential address at the 1991 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She worked at the National Archives (NARA) from 1968-95 and was assistant archivist at the time of this address.  After retiring from NARA, she served as the founding Executive Director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary (1995-98) and then as director of Archives and Records Management for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1999-2002).  Since 2002, she has worked as a consulting archivist.  This address was published in the Summer 1992 issue of the American Archivist.

Peterson’s basic premise was that reading, writing, and arithmetic had changed so dramatically during the 20th century that research and reference services at archives would be bound to change in the 21st century.  She first identified the reasons why people read – most importantly for archives, people read to gain information.  She acknowledged how the technological developments of the 20th century, including telephones and television, made people more likely to gain information through oral avenues rather than written ones and cited results from SAT examinations as evidence that Americans were becoming less proficient in reading and writing.  As for the impact of this trend on archives, she suggested it would be different for archives typically with an elite clientele – such as manuscript collections, business archives, and presidential libraries.  While these users would tend to be good readers, she asserted they would also be well-versed in using computers and would demand “direct random access rather than the slow, sequential access of the typical written finding aid” (416).  As for public archives, she explained that archives are already intimidating institutions for the casual user, and if reading is the only avenue to service, this problem will increase.  Unrelated to reading ability, Peterson suggested there would be an increasing number of users seeking nontextual materials who would be frustrated by having to navigate written devices to find nontextual materials.  Finally, she recognized that an increasing percentage of the American population comes to English as a second language, which obviously makes written finding aids a cumbersome way to access archival collections.  Unfortunately, these criticisms of finding aids have not been addressed in any comprehensive way.

Peterson identified three main purposes for writing (417):

  • “to transmit information accurately over space and over time”
  • to manage “very large entities . . . organizations that are so large that a single individual cannot hold in the mind all the details required for effective administration”
  • to aid “in logical thinking . . . by fixing a random placement of thought with the possibility of retrieving and reviewing ideas forgotten or incompletely realized and subsequently ordering them into a logical pattern”

Yet she also pointed to a decline in the ability or inclination to write, suggesting this might influence archives with a preference by users to submit inquiries orally rather than in written form.  She asserted that written inquiries tend to be more precise and carefully thought out, whereas oral inquiries would likely require greater attention by archival staff to clarify the purpose of research.

Peterson cited some appalling statistics about the proficiency of Americans regarding arithmetic but suggested this deficiency should have a somewhat limited impact on archives.  Specifically, she believed archives would find their “capacities to provide manipulation and duplication services may come under pressure as more data sets find homes in the archives” (418).  With the rise of digital humanities, this prediction certainly seems to be coming true.

Peterson suggested four possible impacts on archives because of this changing user base:

  1. Archives might do nothing differently, despite people’s difficulties in accessing archival materials.  But as she eloquently pointed out, this would fly in the face of “the great democratic ideals that are the foundations of the public archival institutions” (418).
  2. The necessity of more mediation between the user and the documents would lead to more professional researchers who could travel comfortably in archival waters on behalf of others.
  3. Mediators may develop to translate archival description for the masses.  Peterson suggested this could come from commercial services or other professionals, such as librarians.
  4. Archives could become mediators themselves, either by providing “assistance in negotiating finding aids” or by providing “information from the documents – not just information about the documents” (419).

To elaborate on the last possibility, Peterson suggested that archival finding aids need to be more “user-driven” and should incorporate signs and symbols as a means of providing users with “easy, logical search paths” (419).  As for archives providing a different kind of service, she made an interesting distinction between reference service and research service.  Acknowledging that providing research services would require a greater concentration of personnel, then the question becomes when is reference service sufficient and when is research service necessary?  Peterson posed the following questions:

“What is the responsibility of the archives in a case where a person’s rights and benefits may be involved?  And if an archives will provide research service in a benefits case, will an archives also provide it in a personal-interest case?  Can we afford to provide this service?  In a political system where power comes from the people, can we afford not to?” (419)

Peterson concluded with this challenge for archivists:

“Let us remember that we hold information that our fellow citizens crave.  Let us remember that we hold it in trust.  And then let us find ways, make ways, create ways, to deliver it to the democratic whole of the men and women and children who depend upon us” (419).