As archives are working hard to make their collections available online new types of users are flocking to their websites with a wide variety of different quests for knowledge. But there is one thing that the web can’t replace and that is the face to face help of the archivist who knows the collections in and out. They are invaluable for getting that one object with the information users otherwise wouldn’t think off and are quick to spot who needs a nudge in the right direction. This service is really hard to recreate on the web and to find out if people are actually finding and using the digitized collections you can research the way users interact with the website.
Depending on what type of interface your institution uses with a little help from the IT department you can get your hands on some interesting user statistics which tell you all about which pages are being visited and for how long, where the people are coming from and what they are searching for. Not surprisingly they share similarities with the people who visit the archive in person, marriage records are often requested by people who are interested in genealogy, blueprints of old buildings are asked by researchers with interest in architecture and city records are requested by the local historians. Although the user statistics can’t give you the personal details of these people they do provide an overview of how the archive is being used and can help with the decision making process for further digitization. However, did you ever consider looking at the object statistics?
Why should you look at the web statistics of the objects?
By taking the approach from the object’s point of view rather than the users’ you can quickly view which objects are popular and which not. If possible (again depending on the system) the data from which objects appear in search queries can help to better describe objects or attach keywords that people are often using as search terms. For the not so popular objects or even those that are online but not one living soul has seen them some special care is needed. These objects can pose a risk in the justification for the digitization of the archive. Since the pro
These objects can pose a risk in the justification for the digitization of the archive. Since the process is a costly one funders and stakeholders want to make sure that the money is well spent and hard user statistics is one way to show that the money is well spent and people are using the collection online. Eventually, we would like to have every object available online but in the meantime, decisions have to be made and some objects who qualify for digitization are being left behind because of their ‘value’ (or rather the lack of it). This does not mean they are not worth it, in contrary, these objects have already been carefully selected time and time again and have earned their right to be in the archive. They are valuable and their stories deserve to be heard. The physical archive poses challenges such as access which the internet does not. By taking advantage of this medium in the right way these hidden gems can help to raise rather than lose funding.
So what about the retail method?
In retail, they come across this problem on an almost daily basis. When an item isn’t selling in a shop they move it around, combine it with different pieces and have the salespeople promote it all in order to shed a new light on the product. When an item isn’t selling online they make a feature out of it. They put it on the front page, the inspire page, sent it around in the newsletter and promote it on social media. Of course, there is little use moving an object around in the archive, the archive is built as a storage facility, not a shop open for public. However, those helping researchers finding the right objects can ‘promote’ certain object that might be relevant. Nonetheless, as I pointed out earlier, the archive’s website lacks the personal interaction. Moving objects around on the web is also inadvisable as many people rely on permanent links in order to share, save and find the objects they want. So what should you do?
Put it in context
Sometimes people can’t find the object because there isn’t enough information . Try to tell the story of the object, any information is welcome as long as it is written in a plainly understandable language. This extra information is favourite under the casual browsing user who is not in search of anything particular. Adding the extra text/context will also help in improving the object’s search ability.
Show how the object is connected to others
Ever went online shopping and saw in the side bar ‘fits well with’ or ‘others bought these’? Because of the fluidity of the net, it has become easier to make visualisations on how one thing is connected to another. Any archivist knows that can put an item on a shelf only once at a time but that doesn’t mean that it might very well belong somewhere else as well. Through meta data, you can show some of the connections but you are limited to the format and language. The use of network diagrams can solve this problem. With network diagrams, you can not only show how the object is positioned within a collection but also how it is connected to certain topics and subjects and also how it relates to those topics/subjects to popular objects. Making these connections can help to show the value and importance of the object.
Promote the object
What do retailers do when something isn’t selling? They get the word out! To increase the page views of unpopular objects you can promote these objects by sharing them on social media, including them in the newsletter and put them on the front page. Having a social media presence is becoming more and more important to connect to the community but getting it right is hard work. By posting once a day or once a week an object that hasn’t been very popular online accompanied with two or three lines of text explaining what the object is can drastically increase page views as people want to find out more. Making it a regular item on social media by calling it for example hidden gems or lost and found will get people excited to follow your social media page and like these kinds of post. However, consistency is important once you stop posting people will forget about you very quickly but when time is precious there is one trick that can help you get the posts out without costing you time: Repost. Well not exactly repost but when you are posting regularly you can repeat after about 6 months the same objects mixed with a couple of new ones. As the people following you on social media are never consistent and people tend to forget things, reposting objects will feel as new ones to most followers.
It is all about communicating
In the end, it is all about getting the word out. Because people assume something doesn’t exist when they can’t find it on the web it is important to show people that there are items they haven’t found or thought off in your collection. Retailers use these tactics to sell items that are not doing very well and although you are not selling the objects making people aware of all the wonderful things hidden in the archive can help to secure funding for the future.