Next generation finding aids: beyond paper?

I was talking to some colleagues at the California Digital Library on Friday about the future of finding aids. Rosalie Lack asked me to swing by and give a recap of my presentation on the Future of Finding Aids at the 2006 SAA conference. (I still haven’t written up that paper, which was based on user-study outtakes, but I promise to at least summarize it soon. I was surprised to find that I still find a lot of my conclusions to be relevant.)

Our conversation got around to “next generation” finding aids, an idea I’ve heard bandied about before. We need to go “beyond paper,” to make the value in finding aids come through for users. On the one hand, I agree. Paper finding aids are laden with our insider language (scope and content note, container list). On the other hand, where I really think we’ve gone astray is in the online presentation of finding aids. Many online finding aid presentation systems have a “table of contents” (using our insider language), and researchers need to click to get to each section. We inherited this type of display in the SGML days, when we were using tools like Panorama and Dynaweb, which were optimized to work with (old style) eBooks. So maybe that’s what doesn’t work — making finding aids into “books.”

In an online environment, although there’s a lot of temptation to innovate, I think we should consider the paradigms that work well for end users. A web page is a pretty well-understood paradigm. So, why not put up finding aids as web pages, with few or no navigational aids? (This is leaving aside the handful of finding aids that are just too big to put up without chunking in some way.)

I still think we need to deal with the issue of labels, and come up with terms that the user will understand (instead of “scope and content” something like “What’s in this collection?”).

I missed SAA this year, and probably a bunch of great presentations and posters on visual presentation of information in finding aids, so I’m not up on the latest and greatest. But I wonder if we’re putting the blame on the paper finding aids, when really we should be putting the blame on online finding aids?

At the end of our meeting, we spent some time looking at a variety of websites that bring together collection descriptions in ISAD-G, or finding aids from an institution or group of institutions. Even though we knew what we were looking at, and were all pretty familiar with the structure of collection description, we were pretty darned confused and we did a lot of erroneous clicking! It was an eye-opening experience. I recommend this exercise for those of you who are thinking about a redesign.