26 October 2009

Following on NARA Proposed Changes

Editor's note: This article responds to NARA Press Release dated October 22, 2009, which followed an October 20 article in UpFront with NGS. Marie Varrelman Melchiori, CG, CGL, Coordinator of the Archives 1 User's Group, offered the following explanations.

I would like to compare the statements of the A-1 User’s Group and the NARA press release:
A-1 User’s Group
The Microfilm Reading Room will be moved to a drastically smaller space (the current Finding Aids Room) with significantly fewer microfilm readers. We recognize that the number of researchers using the microfilm area has diminished over the past few years, but there is still a demand to use microfilm. We suggest a room containing at least 30 readers, which would be approximately half the current number.

NARA responded with:
Are you eliminating the Microfilm Reading Room?
No. Over the last few years use of our microfilm holdings has decreased by 70%. In fiscal year 2000 we had 53,000 microfilm researcher visits; in fiscal year 2009 we had 16,000 microfilm research visits. When our microfilm reading room was first designed and built we estimated the need for 100 microfilm readers. Because of digitization and other factors, there no longer is the need for so many microfilm readers. So we are considering reducing the number of microfilm machines to 30 and increasing the number of public access computers to meet the demand for the old and the new technology. We will maintain the number of microfilm machines at a level that is needed by those researchers who continue to have the need for microfilm.

My comment: The User’s Group never suggested that the microfilm reading room was to be eliminated. We agreed that the numbers are down, but we would like to see at least 30 readers.

A-1 User’s Group:
Direct researcher access to microfilm collections will be eliminated and replaced with a "pull on demand" system. We believe it is unworkable, and result in much wasted researcher time by requiring researchers to request individual rolls of microfilm, then wait for a staff member to retrieve it from a stack area deep within the building. No one has been able to tell us where the microfilm will be stored or how long it will take to retrieve it.

NARA responded with:
Are you eliminating self-service microfilm?
No. For the convenience of both researchers and staff, the National Archives maintains a policy of allowing researchers to browse our microfilm cabinets and select their own microfilm. We will continue with this policy as long as research demand warrants it. We may, however, relocate the microfilm to another public area adjacent to the microfilm reading room.

My comment: This was one of the suggestions that the User’s Group found totally unacceptable. NARA’s response [“We will continue with this policy as long as research demand warrants it. We may, however, relocate the microfilm to another public area adjacent to the microfilm reading room”] gives them the opportunity to change their minds at any time. No criteria have been set to indicate what is meant by “as long as research demand warrants it.” Knowing the location of the microfilm now and the areas surrounding the Consultant’s Office, there is little space to put the film. Since this was a move that was imminent (I overheard the NARA staff members looking at the area in the library.), I would assume the area would have already been chosen.

If you look at the map [in the original article], the microfilm is now located in the two hallways, and along two sides of the existing microfilm reading room. This is not re-locating a couple of hundred rolls of film.

A-1 User’s Group:
The Lecture Room will be eliminated. No one has been able to tell us where a new Lecture Room would be. This room is used frequently for NARA public programs (genealogy lectures, etc.) as well as internal NARA meetings.

NARA responded with:
Are you eliminating the Lecture Room?
No. Our current lecture room on the ground floor (G-24) is used daily for programs such as our very popular “Know Your Records” seminars. Any renovation of the ground floor research area will include a lecture room so our researchers, visitors, and NARA staff can continue to use it for critical outreach and other activities.

My comment: We said, “ No one has been able to tell us where a New Lecture Room would be.” Again, with a move imminent, the assumption is that the new space would already be designated.

A-1 User’s Group:
The Finding Aids Room (Consultants' Office) is to be moved from its current room, which provides adequate space for staff, researchers, and necessary finding aids to textual (unfilmed) records, to a small open area in the library which will not provide adequate working space or privacy.

NARA responded with:
Are you reducing the size of the Finding Aids/Consultation Room?
No. Current plans would more than double that space.
The current room on the ground floor of the National Archives Building (Room G-28) serves as the finding aids room, the consultation area, and as office space for three staff members. The area available in this space for consultation with the public is approximately 450 square feet and has three consultation tables. We are proposing to move the consultation area from G-28 to the adjacent area which is currently the National Archives Library, G-30. We will use approximately 1100 square feet of what is now Library space for this consultation area. The space will have eight tables for consultation. So, we will more than double the area and number of tables for researchers to consult with staff and use the finding aids. The three staff members who currently have their workspace in G-28 will have new workstations adjacent to the research room that they can use to do other work when they are not providing direct consultation service. This plan is based on the successful model that has been in place for several years for consultants at Archives II in College Park.

My comment: While it would be nice to have the additional space, there is no indication that this will be a dedicated space. One of the “plus” points mentioned was that, “if the consultant’s area was full, you could move to any other table in the library.” I wonder how a library user would like to have a consultation taking place right next to them? The current Finding Aids/Consultant’s office has 3 distinct areas. One for military, one for Navy, and one for Civil.

The statement, “This plan is based on the successful model that has been in place for several years for consultants at Archives II in College Park,” leads the reader to believe that the Consultants meet in the A-2 Library. While it is a very successful model, it is NOT in the 3rd floor library, Room 3000, but in a glass enclosed area in the 2nd Floor Textual Research Area. This dedicated room contains all the finding aids as well as real live Archivists. It is not tables in an open library. We want a dedicated room for the Archivists and the finding aids at Archives -I. If this is what NARA intends, a glass enclosed, dedicated room, I’m sure the A-1 User’s Group would back it wholeheartedly.

A-1 User’s Group:
The Orientation and Registration area would be eliminated. This is currently used for researcher registration, to issue researcher identification cards, and for researcher consultations with staff members and volunteers, and for researcher access to computers. No one has been able to tell us where these functions would be moved.
NARA responded with:
What are you doing with the Orientation and Registration Area?
While we may eventually re-locate those areas physically, we have no immediate plans to do so. We of course would not eliminate this critical function, and will ensure it is located appropriately.

My comment: Again, we stated, “No one has been able to tell us where these functions would be moved.” We realize these are important to NARA functions and cannot be eliminated.

NARA responded with:
These changes to the National Archives Building should improve the services we provide to researchers. No functions or services are being eliminated or reduced.

To ensure that the changes meet the needs of researchers, we intend to continue to have our quarterly meetings with our Archives I user group to keep users informed and solicit their comments.

My personal response:
We obtained the information that generated our letter from the 16 October A-1 User's Group meeting. It was not erroneous. Minutes going back to 23 June 2008 mention the reduction of the microfilm reading room and film being “pull on demand." At that time it was acknowledged that those plans have been discussed, “however, NARA does not have the funds for the renovations at this time.” I assume the 5-phase plan allows NARA to move the consultant’s office and the microfilm reading room without a budget item. I have heard that the rest of the renovation is in the 2011 NARA budget.

If NARA intends the self-pull microfilm and a dedicated Consultants/Finding Aids room, I would support their plan. I am happy to hear that NARA will continue to meet with the Archives-1 User’s Group. We are available to meet with NARA staff whenever necessary.

Marie Varrelman Melchiori, CG, CGL
Melchiori Research Services, L.L.C.

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