How users find and visit archival aggregation websites

The following post is part of a series highlighting OCLC Research’s efforts for the Building a National Finding Aid Network (NAFAN) project.   

A desk with a laptop, notebook and coffee ready for work. Photo by
Nick Morrison. Free use image from UnSplash.

This post is the fifth in a series on the NAFAN study conducted by OCLC Research in partnership with the California Digital Library and University of Virginia Libraries. This post, like the fourth, covers the point-of-service pop-up survey administered to users when they visited archival aggregation websites. The NAFAN point-of-service pop-up survey captured a variety of information about users. In addition to describing the demographics of users, it also captured search behavior from 13 archival aggregator websites. This post will focus on search behavior. Background on the research methods OCLC Research is using for the NAFAN study can be found in earlier Hanging Together posts in this series.       

 The information we collect through this project is a key component to the vision for a national portal for users to access aggregated archival information. The findings from the pop-up survey hosted on the archival aggregator websites help to paint a picture of who comes to archival aggregation websites and allowed OCLC Research to invite a subset of users of aggregators for in-depth individual interviews conducted this Fall and Winter. How and why users came to the aggregation websites tells us more about the kinds of information they trust and how they conduct research across the internet. This is valuable information when building a new portal that addresses a wide variety of researchers.  


 The pop-up survey was posted on the homepage, on search results pages, and on the landing page for each finding aid published within the aggregator system. This provided users the chance to respond to the survey from multiple paths to the aggregator website. The total survey response far exceeded expectations with 3,300 completed responses from all sites.  

How do they search?

We asked a series of questions about search behavior to identify the resources that users typically need when they are doing research for their projects. A little less than half indicated that they found the archival aggregation website through a browser search (44%). See Chart 1. Roughly 20% also indicated that they have used the aggregation site before or they followed a link on a website or social media. Library catalogs, university websites, and other archival aggregators often link to finding aids and resources at archival aggregation sites. A researcher who uses at least one of these sources has a good chance of coming to an aggregation site during their project.  Additionally, they might have the website bookmarked for repeated use if they are providing reference for users at a library or working on collection development for their institution.  

Chart 1. NAFAN pop-up survey users’ avenues for finding archival aggregation website

The pop-up survey also asked users if they searched elsewhere before coming to the archival aggregation site. Fifty-eight percent stated that they did.  Among those respondents, the majority (62.2%) stated that they started with a search engine. Chart 2 below shows that more than half of the users (54.4%) also searched an individual archives website. Large percentages of users also reported visiting a university library website (24.4%), a genealogy website (29.4%) and Wikipedia (21.1%). This suggests that archival aggregators complement other available information online. 

Chart 2. NAFAN pop-up survey users’ other research resources 

Note: Totals do not sum to 100%. 

Surprisingly, even though the range of professions might indicate that respondents are frequent users of archival aggregation websites, half of the respondents indicated that, at the time when they responded to the survey, it was their first visit (55.4%) to an aggregation website. A very small percentage (2.8%) reported using the website daily, and the more frequent users reported using the website less than monthly (16.3%). 

Chart 3. NAFAN pop-up survey users’ frequency of visits to archival aggregation website 

These preliminary findings indicate that archival aggregators are visited by various types of researchers for their projects. Groups that visit range from information professionals like archivists and librarians, to academic researchers to retirees on a semi-frequent basis. The archival aggregation websites often are found through open web searching and archival websites. NAFAN project partners will be able to use these insights about users as they consider the requirements for building a prototype and in the future for user experience testing.  

Look for more posts in this series on other parts of the Building a National Finding Aid Network project website from OCLC Research. 

Acknowledgements: I want to thank my project team colleagues, Chela Scott Weber, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Chris Cyr, Brittany Brannon, and Merrilee Proffitt for their assistance with the survey data collection and analysis; OCLC Research colleagues that reviewed the draft pop-up survey questionnaire; and Brooke Doyle, Chela, Lynn, and Merrilee for their review of this blog post. We also want to thank the respondents for taking the time to support our research efforts and complete the survey. 

3 Comments on “How users find and visit archival aggregation websites”

  1. These proportions are consistent with the analytics collected on the Archives West site for 10+ years. How much use are you making of aggregators’ collected analytics? It seems like just the analytics for AW, OAC, and Virginia Heritage (which have the vast majority of the finding aids nationally) would be an interesting starting place.

    1. Hi Jodi, thanks for reading! These insights are also consistent with ArchiveGrid, to the best of my knowledge. We are not delving deeper into the analytics of each aggregator though we did use the analytics from each aggregator to determine sampling rates for the pop-up survey. For aggregators that had high volume per month we reduced their sampling rate to 50%, and the aggregators that had low volume per month were sampled at 100%. From here we can speak generally about users of aggregation sites for context and pair it with findings from individual interviews with users we collected this Fall.

      1. Hi Lesley, thanks for your reply. I’ll continue avidly following your work, which is an unprecedented level of inquiry into these topics. Great work!!

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