A research roadmap for Building a National Finding Aid Network (NAFAN)

Graphic for the NAFAN project: a stylized magnifying glass and web browser superimposed over a map of the United States

I had the opportunity to develop and lead the OCLC project team in the user research design phase for the IMLS-funded project (grant number LG-246349-OLS-20), Building a National Finding Aid Network (NAFAN). We are collaborating on this project with our colleagues at the California Digital Library and the University of Virginia. For additional details about the project, please refer to the project web page and the November 10, 2020 Hanging Together blog post written by my colleague Merrilee Proffitt. Other research includes conducting an evaluation of finding aid data quality, described in a July 28, 2021 Hanging Together blog post by Bruce Washburn.

The OCLC project team developed a mixed methods approach to learn about individuals who use aggregated archival descriptions. The intent is to identify who uses these descriptions, why they use them, and what preferences they have for discovery and access.

We also are interested in learning from archive, museum, and library staff about how they create and publish archival descriptions. We want to identify and discuss the opportunities and challenges these staff experience when describing archival materials, sharing archival description on the web, and participating in or not participating in finding aid aggregations.

As you will see below, this methodology is designed to capture information about the use, design and management of the current archival aggregation ecosystem, currently comprised of 13 separate websites. Findings from this research will inform the design of the future NAFAN platform. It aims to serve the needs for both users and contributors to create a meaningful, inclusive and low-barrier pathway for access to archival collections.

Why archival user research is important

Prior to developing the research questions and design, we reviewed the literature identifying studies related to aggregations of archival description which represent the holdings of multiple institutions. We recognized a gap in the literature. While there was research about user interaction with individual finding aids and the discovery systems of individual institutions, there was no research specifically identifying the users of aggregations and their research needs. Additionally, although some work has addressed the information-seeking behaviors and research practices of scholars using primary sources, it primarily has focused on historians and other academic researchers in the humanities. However, recent work on archival user personas at multiple institutions indicate that users of archives are not only scholars, but also genealogists, local historians, and enthusiast researchers; K-12 educators; and a range of researchers using archives for their professional and creative work in fields such as journalism, documentary filmmaking, fiction writing; as well as public services librarians and archivists.

What we want to learn from the NAFAN research

Based on the gaps in the identification of users of archive aggregators and the documented archival user personas, we decided to survey and subsequently interview users of aggregated archival description as well as the archive, museum, and library staff who provide description for archive collections. Building on questions outlined in the final report from the first phase of the NAFAN project, we prioritized a set of research questions to address the key issues that we believe are foundational to informing the other phases of the research for the formulation of technical and system requirements for modeling a national archival finding aid network.

Research questions: Users of aggregated archival description 

  1. Who are the current users of aggregated archival description?
    • Do current user types align with the persona types and needs identified in recent archival persona work (i.e., what characteristics are present vs. not)?   
  2. Why are the current users trying to discover and access archival collections via aggregation of archival description?   
  3. How are current users discovering and accessing aggregations of archival description? 
    • What are the benefits and challenges users face when searching archival description in aggregation?   

Research questions: Staff who provide description for archival collections

  1. What are the enabling and constraining factors that influence whether organizations describe the archival collections in their care?  
  2. What are the enabling or constraining factors that influence whether organizations contribute to an aggregation of archival description?  
  3. What value does participation in an archival aggregation service bring to organizations?   
  4. What is the structure and extent of consistency across the body of metadata records in current aggregations of archival description?
    • Can that body of metadata records support user needs identified in findings from the user research phase of the study?
      • If so, how? If not, what are the gaps?  

Why the data collection tools were selected to answer our research questions

To develop a more complete picture of the users and creators of archival description, we used a mixed methods approach for data collection and analysis. Our research design includes a pop-up survey and individual semi-structured interviews with users of aggregated archival description and focus group interviews with archive, museum, and library staff who provide description for archive collections.

The pop-up survey provides a broad overview of the demographics, rationale, and content and format preferences for using aggregated archival description while the semi-structured individual interviews provide more in-depth information on the hows and whys for using them. The focus group interviews with archivists enabled us to identify the challenges and opportunities experienced when contributing to archival aggregation services as well as their perceptions of their users’ needs and expectations.

Focus Group Interviews: Ten virtual focus group interviews, with approximately five participants each for a total of 52 participants were conducted with archivists. The participants worked in institutions where the archives staff either currently contribute to an aggregation or in institutions where the archives staff currently do not contribute to an aggregation. Although focus group interview data cannot be generalized to an entire population, we used this methodology to identify archivists’ needs, expectations, and perceptions of contributing to and using aggregated archival description.

The focus group interview data were digitally recorded and transcribed for content analysis of themes. The responses to the questions will be coded based on emerging themes and a comparative analysis of the responses will be calculated. The findings will be used for identifying contributor needs in relation to finding aid aggregations and evaluating the quality of existing finding aid data; technical assessments of potential systems to support network functions and formulating system requirements for a minimum viable national finding aid network; and community building, sustainability planning, and governance modeling to support subsequent phases of the project.

User Pop-up Survey: A pop-up survey was implemented on 12 NAFAN partner aggregation websites from March 18 to May 31, 2021 to gather demographic data and information about why and how individuals use finding aid aggregations, as well as their preferred format types. It was designed and implemented using SurveyMonkey software and included both open-ended and fixed response questions. There were 3,300 completed and usable survey responses, providing a convenience sampling frame for this phase of the project. The pop-up survey data are being analyzed using descriptive statistics and a comparative analysis of the responses from the different types of users identified in the demographic data that we collected.  

User Semi-Structured Interviews: All respondents of the pop-up survey were invited to participate in a virtual, 45-60 minute, one-on-one semi-structured interview that includes guided open-ended questions that are asked in the same order during each interview. The respondents were offered a $50 gift card, if they volunteered, were invited, and completed the interview. We are in the process of identifying 25 users who indicated they are interested in participating in the interviews and who represent the different user types and demographics of the pop-up survey respondents. These interviews will provide more detailed information about how and why individuals use finding aid aggregations.

The data collected from the individual semi-structured interviews will be digitally recorded and transcribed for coding and analysis. Descriptive statistics and a comparative analysis of the responses in the demographic data collected during the individual semi-structured interview sessions will be calculated. A codebook will be developed from the themes emerging from the interviews and the transcribed responses to the open-ended questions will be coded in the NVivo software using the codebook. Following coding, we will gather samples of the answers and calculate inter-coder reliability to ensure consistency across the corpus of data.

What’s next in NAFAN research

OCLC Research will begin conducting the individual semi-structured interviews with users of aggregated archival description. These data will be analyzed, as will the data from the user pop-up survey and the archive, museum, and library staff focus group interviews. We will continue to share our findings and we welcome your feedback.

Acknowledgements: I want to thank my project team colleagues, Chela Scott Weber, Lesley Langa, Brooke Doyle, Brittany Brannon, Merrilee Proffitt, and Janet Mason for their assistance with the focus group interview and survey data collection and analysis and to Chela, Lesley, and Merrilee for their review of this blog post.