OCLC Research and the National Finding Aid Network project

The current state of US finding aid aggregation

We are very pleased to share details about our involvement in the Building a National Finding Aid Network project, which has received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. OCLC will be working with the University of Virginia and project lead California Digital Library, in close partnership with LYRASIS and statewide/regional aggregators, to conduct a two-year research and demonstration project to build the foundation for a national archival finding aid network. Work will be conducted in parallel across multiple focus areas, including:  

  • Research investigating end-user and contributor needs in relation to finding aid aggregations 
  • 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 product instantiation of the network  
  • Community building, sustainability planning, and governance modeling to support subsequent phases moving from a project to a program, post-2022  

OCLC Research will be involved in the first two focus areas, and we could not be more excited! This is the first in what we hope will be a series of posts to keep you filled in on what we are doing on the project.

Where did this project come from?

“Finding Aid Aggregation at a Crossroads” report

This project is an outcome of a a 2018-2019 planning initiative. OCLC was also a participant in the earlier project, which produced both findings and a subsequent action plan.

Why is OCLC involved?

OCLC has been in on the finding aid aggregation game for a long time! The planning phase research identified three “meta-aggregators” (defined as programs or organizations that harvest and index finding aid data — or descriptions of archival context — from aggregators and individual institutions). In the US, OCLC’s ArchiveGrid is of those (along with the History of Medicine Finding Aid Consortium, and the Social Networks and Archival Context program — or “SNAC”).

OCLC Research is also an acknowledged leader in conducting research projects on behalf of the archives and special collections community.

What the work will look like

OCLC will lead work in three major areas of inquiry:

Research with end users

We will explore two main research questions:

  • Who are the current users of finding aid aggregations? Do they align with the persona types and needs identified in recent archival persona work?
  • What are the benefits and challenges users face when searching for descriptions of archival materials within finding aid aggregations?

We will conduct a pop-up survey on the sites of regional aggregators who are partners on the grant. The survey will gather information about demographics and information seeking needs of the users of finding aid aggregations, and help us identify people who are willing to take part in semi-structured interviews to help us further understand their research needs. Semi-structured interviews will be conducted, and recorded and transcribed. Transcriptions will be coded and analyzed using NVivo.

In this portion of our work, we will seek to better understand who archival researchers are and their goals and motivations in their research, in order to inform what functionality might be prioritized and included in a national aggregation structure.

Research with cultural heritage institutions

Here, we will explore three main research questions:

  • What are the enabling and constraining factors that influence whether and how institutions describe the archival collections in their care?
  • What are the enabling or constraining factors that influence whether institutions contribute to an aggregation?
  • What value does participation in an aggregation service bring to institutions?

To answer these questions, we will conduct focus group interviews with colleagues in a variety of types and sizes of cultural heritage institutions that steward archival collections. Focus group interviews will be conducted, and recorded and transcribed. Transcriptions will be coded and analyzed using NVivo.

We will seek to to identify users’ and prospective users’ expectations and needs related to aggregation and discovery of archival description, to inform what functionality, policy, and governance structures might best support a national aggregation.

Evaluation of finding aid data quality

In approaching the finding aid data quality, we will explore these main research questions:

  • What is the structure and extent of consistency across finding aid data in current aggregations?
  • Can that data support the needs to be identified in the user research phase of the study? If so, how? If not, what are the gaps?

In approaching assessing finding aid quality, we will use representative samples from multiple aggregators. We will conduct a first wave of analysis, examining consistency and variance in descriptive and encoding practice. We will then conduct a second wave of analysis informed by the end user and cultural heritage institution portions of our research, to assess if extant data can support the kinds of functionality identified as needed via our survey, interviews, and focus groups.

Here we will seek to identify the quality of existing finding aid data at scale, in order to inform and scope the network’s initial functionality and lay the groundwork for iterative data remediation and expanded network features in subsequent phases of development.

Project team

The OCLC project team is led by Chela Scott Weber, with Lynn Silipigni Connaway leading research design, and includes , Chris Cyr, Brittany Bannon, , Janet Mason, Merrilee Proffitt, and Bruce Washburn. We are very pleased to welcome Lesley Langa as an Associate Researcher for this project. Lesley earned her Master of Arts at Florida State University and her doctoral degree at the University of Maryland. She has extensive research experience and has worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, and IMLS.

We are excited to get to work on this project! Keep an eye out here for updates on our explorations as the project unfolds.