| Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study |
6.1 One of the unexpected results of the democratization of archives has been the increased cooperation between repositories in the provision of services to users. Starting with dissemination efforts such as traveling exhibitions and inter-library loan of microfilm, archives have progressed in their search for efficient ways to make information available to users in their home localities. The goal has been to make archival research as convenient and inexpensive as possible.
6.2 In launching these initiatives, archives were quick to realize the advantages of working together in sharing and disseminating information about related holdings. In some cases, archives turned to other institutions to make copies of their own records available through the latters' reference facilities. In other cases, repositories formed partnerships to produce comprehensive lists of holdings to be found in a number of institutions so that researchers could better focus their holdings. The concept of union lists of holdings organized by constituency, theme, or medium evolved from this tradition. The Union List of Manuscripts and the Guide to Canadian photographic archives in Canada, the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections in the United States, and the Repertoire sommaire des fonds manuscrits conserves dans les bibliothÃ¨ques et archives de Suisse are but a few examples of these efforts.
6.3 Over the years, union lists have had varying degrees of success. The absence of descriptive standards, inconsistent returns or input, problems with automation, and resource shortages associated with the collection and maintenance of the data eroded much of the initial enthusiasm about these tools. Also, while it may have appeared that researchers were well served by union lists, some studies have demonstrated the opposite. The Research Study on Decentralized Access undertaken at the National Archives of Canada in 1987, for instance, revealed that national union lists were the least used source of archival information.' It is now evident that these tools have been more helpful to archivists than to the public for which they were ostensibly created.
6.4 In recent years, however, the prospects for the further development - or even reconceptualization - of union lists have changed with advances in global communication technologies. Combined with increased user and creator familiarity with technological tools and the decreasing costs of automation, archives are once again considering the wider dissemination of information about their holdings, albeit in very different ways.
6.5 Currently, the challenge for archives is to develop information networks that are focused enough to be of use to researchers. In some cases, building from the foundations laid in the sixties and seventies, it may be possible to develop automated guides to repositories and holdings that are sufficiently comprehensive and easy to use that casual network "browsers" and actual users are able to identify and locate information of interest. In such systems it will be imperative that the intent - and by that we mean the content, context, and the limitations - of the networks are clear to users who access them.
6.6 While it is preferable for the archival community to develop common communication approaches for such ventures, the extent to which these have to be standardized is no longer as extensive as it used to be. Interchange standards which permit the sharing of information created on dissimilar systems, viewer technologies which allow for the retrieving and reformatting of information, and "search engines" which enable free-text searches have paved the way for the easy creation of dissemination products.
6.7 In the area of dissemination of copies of holdings, interlending remains an effective method of sharing information between repositories and users. The overall purpose, however, is less to share resources - as in the case of libraries - but to make information more readily available without having to build elaborate diffusion frameworks. Once the copying of original records has been completed, interlending becomes a relatively inexpensive method of widely diffusing information. Consequently, interlending in archives consists of more than the traditional loan scenario that libraries have developed. It may involve the placing of copies of originals in regional centres, as it is done at the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States; the selling of copies to interested libraries, clients, etc; or the establishment of cooperative ventures whereby copies of information are shared by institutions with common reference interests.
6.8 Traditional technologies have proven to be long-lasting and efficient in copying paper based records for diffusion purposes. Up to now, due to its durability, existing technical expertise, and relative ease of access, microfilming has been the copying option of choice in the archival world. Microfilming provides opportunities for researchers to examine near-exact copies of documents off-site through diffusion systems that allow for the relatively inexpensive movement of records. It also enables the sharing of collections of common interest between repositories. This is particularly useful in countries that were populated as a result of initiatives from other countries. The case of former British colonies is a good example. Since the current legal and social structures of these countries are the result of centuries of British influence, the need to refer to British archives is considerable. The same situation exists in the former Soviet republics or parts of former French Africa. It is to be expected that in the coming years, extensive copying of those records relating to their own collectivities will be carried out by new republics.
6.9 In the past, much of archives' diffusion efforts focused on paper records. This was the result of research interests and the availability of copying technologies. With the development of new copying and communication technologies, the possibilities for the dissemination of non-paper records has increased considerably. There is no longer any reason why audio, visual, and electronic records cannot be copied and diffused as extensively as paper records. The tools used for such dissemination might differ but the approaches remain the same.
6.10 As a result of technological developments, there have been interesting variations on the traditional interlending and diffusion models. The National Archives of Canada, for instance, opened in 1992 a prototype "decentralized access site" in Winnipeg, some 2,200 kilometers from National Archives headquarters in Ottawa. Located in the Research Room of the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Access Site provides access to descriptive information (approximately 500,000 automated descriptive records, contained on a CD-ROM product), a video viewing area (with introductory and instructional videos), and microfilmed copies of the most popular and used National Archives holdings. Users can identify the information of interest, and then, either consult it on-site, order copies from Ottawa, or forward requests for additional information via a Fax-Modem. With technological advances in image capturing systems (whether they be optical disk, compact disk, or other formats), it is the intent of the programme to offer, to the degree possible, direct access to holdings through a series of such sites.
6.11 Efforts have also been made to transpose archival information on various electronic media for the purposes of making them widely accessible. Spain's Archivo General de Indias project, for instance, has resulted in the copying, using an optical digital image system, of 9 million pages of historical documents which are currently consulted by more than 3000 visitors every year. In addition to facilitating access to the holdings, this system reduces handling of the records, thus contributing to their conservation. Other like projects are being launched in many other countries; in all cases, the objective is no longer experimental but operational.
6.12 Finally, the possibility of diffusing the holdings themselves is once again generating interest. Given the cost of copying records, archives are experimenting with the loan of records to other repositories and users. In doing so, they borrow from established security and conservation practices which, for years, have governed the loan of originals - usually for exhibition purposes -throughout the museum and archival communities. As we migrate to an electronic environment, such "loans" will become even easier and more effective to administer. Hopefully, this will become a main building block in the development of a worldwide "web" of archival services.