I’ve worked in an open office setup for the bulk of my professional career. This has typically meant sharing an office space with multiple co-workers and students. It has also meant working in a space that is open to the public. In 2015 there was around six or eight months where I had an office to myself, though I tended to have an open door policy.
Recently, after some internal discussions the space that I work in is no longer open to the public every single hour that I’m there. The new public hours have only been in operation for a bit over a week – but is essentially means half my time is spent with an open door and the other half the office door is shut. This week has got me thinking a lot about the value of closed doors, dedicated processing time, and carving out time for specific projects. I had forgotten how much value there is in having a door that can be closed.
I like the flexibility of being able to help people when they drop in. But I’m also really valuing the time I have carved out each day to work on longer term projects, processing that can’t be done in a public space, and the ability to have phone calls without worrying if someone is going to walk in.
When you are front line facing it can often become challenging to dedicate time to non immediate needs – the needs of patrons, rightly, come first. Having staff you can rotate off with or a dedicated space away from patrons can be a huge boon in terms of finding time to do all the other tasks associated with archives aside from research requests and public programming.
I’d be interested in hearing how others balance front line facing roles with other aspects of archival practice. I think is particularly a challenge in small shops where one person does almost everything – from accessioning to reference – and that individual needs to set their own schedule and boundaries.
Thus far, my roles in the heritage field have typically been collection or research based, I enjoy both of these roles and all that goes with them. However, recently my job has expanded into providing some reference services and assisting patrons with research requests. The nature of the reference questions that have come across my desk have included: genealogy research, help navigating the online database, help finding photographs, image use requests, and general research questions.
This foray into the world of reference has made me think about how historical researchers approach reference services and how to ask the right questions when you need assistance. As a result, I’ve come up with this list of items that can help researchers ask good questions when undertaking research.
If there is an online research request form use it. Chances are this form will be automatically directed to the correct staff member, which will safe you time looking for the correct person to ask.
If there isn’t a form look at the staff listing to see if it list someone as reference staff or if there is a department which is relevant to your inquiry.
Similarly, if you are leaving a voicemail on a machine that service multiple staff members be explicit about your area of interest. And don’t forget to leave your phone number!
If you are interested in something you saw online include links to the material.
If inquiring about material that has reference numbers (accession numbers, finding aid title, photograph number, etc) cite this information in your inquiry.
When requesting use of images or information in a project or publication include all pertinent details
What are you going to use the images for? Is it a commercial or a non-commercial use? What quality of images would you require? Is there a time constraint on your request?
If you are asking a more topical question or doing genealogy research be very clear about what information you are looking for and what type of help you need.
Asking pointed and specific questions makes reference staff happy and makes it much easier for them to help you.
Reference staff are there to help you. However, it is much easier to help someone who is clear about their needs — especially when corresponding via email.