Is EAD A Red Herring?: The Path to Innovative Online Archival Information Systems

2012 December


Unpublished paper I wrote in graduate school on online finding aids. I'm really proud of half of it and cringe at the rest. Like I really mean "effictive" and not "innovative" in many places throughout. Still, looking back at it, a lot of the thinking here ended up in the Historical Hazards article.

Encoded Archival Description (EAD) is often cited as a remarkable success story in the world of archival standards. The narrative is one example when archivists gave up their traditional and inward-looking ways of doing things and embraced new technology that enabled them to better promote the use of their most valued and protected material. In other words, EAD is promoted as a successful process when archivists relinquished their curmudgeonly ways of union catalogs and in-person research visits and embraced a standard that allowed their access tools to be accessible from anywhere in the world with only an internet connection. Today, EAD is ubiquitous in the archival field, particularly in university archives, and is seen as a successful and maturing standard - one that was well worth the years of development and the efforts of archivists across the country to implement.

However, recent research has cast many of these assumptions into doubt. While archivists have been patting themselves on the back for their successful embracement of the online world, the field has been inexcusably blind to its new online users. Until quite recently there has been a disparaging gap in published user studies on EAD finding aids on the Internet. As Xiaomu Zhou exclaims, “Missing from most of the literature are analyses addressing the researchers’ use of web sites, interface design of archival web sites, selection of search engines, implementation of search systems, and other related functions of for structured finding aids.”1 In fact, recent research finds many users befuddled when they come across a repository’s webpage. It seems that archivists all over the country are confident enough in their success that they expect users to magically know that their online finding aids often do not lead users to their content! This is in direct contradiction to just about every other information delivery system users will find on the web. If Wikipedia provides full-text online content users will expect online finding aids to. Very rarely will a user be easily notified of this difference in an online EAD finding aid.

It appears, after all, that the narrative of the traditional archivist accepting modernity is somewhat of a red herring. As many of this new research shows, archivists have not relinquished their traditional processes, but have used EAD as a path to continue these obsolete practices in a web environment. Is there any reason an online finding aid should look like its 1950s counterpart? EAD, as it is currently used, has not led to the creation of innovative internet information systems that adhere to archival principles. This, after all, is the primary goal. Are archivists really comfortable that small internet startups that come and go all have more effective information systems than a profession that has over a century of history developing access tools? There must be a major wake-up call for the field and the success and utility of EAD must be called into doubt. We must wonder if different methods can be used to improve online access to archival materials. EAD, it seems, must adapt or become obsolete. To accomplish its abstract mission of enabling effecting online information systems for archival material it may have to significantly shrink its technical scope.

This paper takes long strides to gather recent research on EAD and user studies of online finding aids. First, we will briefly discuss the importance of online access to the archival profession and the great potential of online finding aids. Next we will step in to the ring with the prevailing literature. Thomas J. Frusciano, editor of the Journal of Archival Organization introduces our topic by confidently looking towards the second wave of EAD usage by archivists who he argues are lucky to have avoided the pains of the pioneers. Next, some minor issues arrive with Jinhun Kim’s content analysis of EAD online finding aids. Concerns are then heightened when Xiaomu Zhou examines EAD search functions and their deficiencies. Next, we shall discuss the work of Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland-perhaps the first critic of EAD online information systems. She painstakingly outlines the reasons for the form of traditional finding aids. Therefore her suggestions for improving browsing and retrieval in EAD finding aids cannot be seen as heresy. However, it seems that her suggestions may be insufficient in the context of Joyce Celeste Chapman’s user study at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Her study explicitly shows that both advanced and novice archival users find online EAD finding aids to be gravely deficient. Finally, J. Gordon Daines III & Cory L. Nimer propose radical changes to the ways online finding aids are displayed. The Brigham Young University finding aid system is a new alternative model to delivering archival access tool online. Despite its imperfections, its presence is sure to be a positive influence on the field. Finally, we will offer some simple and resource-cheap strategies for a modified presentation of a typical EAD finding aid. These strategies will reveal some glaring holes in EAD and provoke a radical new suggestion for its future.

The era of the internet and ubiquitous computing has brought drastic changes to perhaps all professions. For archives it represents a vast and underutilized potential to grow. The field has an image problem. The public associates valuable material with museums who occupy a much larger role in everyday life. Thus, many people have assumed that access to archival materials follows the same behind-the-rope and no-touching principles of museums. This has not been helped by some archivists who over decades have unfortunately valued the material over the access of the public. Museums are located in central public places and promoted to all while archives are generally regulated to an obscure portion of a library. Visitors to the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt are shepherded away from historic artifacts by the Park Service but many would be shocked to realize that they could walk across the lawn to another building and handle the original documents from the president’s secret office safe.

The internet allows archives to reestablish its reputation in the eyes of the public. In today’s online environment content-any content-has value, and major players such as Google and social networking companies do whatever they can to draw eyeballs. Archives are full of unique content with enduring public value, and the internet allows archivists to provide access in a way that poses almost no risk to the material. Everywhere on the web interesting content is shared and commented on-passed on by users, for users-and material that has traditionally only been accessible for conscious research can now be available for perfunctory use by almost everyone. Now, schoolteachers, janitors, armchair activists, accountants, and any number of people may be interested in casual use of archival material.

While this may instinctually feel like it is outside the traditional mission of archives, it is not. Our purpose is to retain and provide access to material of enduring value. Limiting, avoiding, or even looking down upon some use of material runs counter to the purpose of archives and of records themselves. More usage broadens the presence of archives everyday life which is likely to educate all stakeholders of the practices and needs of archivists. Major projects may become easier to justify to funders and users may approach repositories with better perspectives on their services.

Altogether, the Internet offers archives with the vast potential to rehabilitate its image in the public eye. Our material must be as accessible as our principles state and our information systems must present the expertise archivists assume they have. By working toward an idealistic presentation of our core principles in an online environment, we educate the public about what we do. Thus, the online arm of a repository holds incredible potential for that institution to raise its stature in the public’s perception. Any negligence in providing feasible online information services must be sharply criticized and corrected.

EAD emerged from a long development period in the 1990s to rapid implementation during the 2000s. Advocates heralded it as the next generation of finding aid, the archival access tool for the internet. While not all archives have found it feasible to switch to EAD, its many users have given it significant momentum as an archival standard. Archivists’ most favorite topic for the late 1990s and early 2000s appears to have been the implementation of EAD and its feasibility. Archivists throughout the country made use of the new standard while being relatively blind to the perceptions of their users. For some years, user studies of online finding aids were few and far between as archivists leaped before they looked - spending significant resources on the switch to EAD before acknowledging the concerns of the people it was supposed to be delivering information to. Only recently has new research revealed significant insufficiencies in typical EAD online finding aids.

Thomas J. Frusciano is as confident as most archivists in the growth and proliferation of EAD. He described the early implementers of the late 1990s as pioneers who bravely stuck their neck out and pushed forward with a process that was still in flux and not yet finalized. He describes how, “Since the publication of these initial studies the archival profession has witnessed an explosion of developments that have enhanced our ability to understand, implement, and adapt EAD in our own descriptive practice.”2 Now, however, archivists are sure to have an easier time as the development of an EAD community has led to the spread of toolkits and templates to aid archivists of many technical backgrounds.

Frusciano tells a narrative of deliberate, yet rapid improvement as the profession as a whole gave a large effort to ensure progress. He details the labors of the Society of American Archivists’ EAD Working Group which led to the release of EAD Tag Library 1.0, and them, EAD Application Guidelines - two publications that shepherded early adopters. Issues that arose in launch EAD programs led to a constructive response from the archival community. The input evolved into EAD 2002, “…with significant changes that addressed these concerns.” 3 To ease the burden of those pioneers in switching over, the Working Group developed a script to automate the process.

The profession has also worked diligently to instruct its constituency on how to use EAD. As Frusciano states, “Over the past ten years, education has been a major focus with EAD.”4 He continues to detail the successes of national workshops, stylesheet workshops, local workshops and the adoption of the standard into the curriculum of most graduate programs. Now, not only are current archivists expected to be comfortable with EAD, but new hires will be well versed in its use. Frusciano also credits Michael J. Fox’s EAD Cookbook with providing the necessary practical assistance and tools that has enabled older professionals to easily adopt the standard. The utility of the Cookbook has led to its wide use, and thus it has also served as a stabilizing presence by making the use of EAD more consistent. In addition, Frusciano discusses the development of new, open-source collection management tools such as Archivist’s Toolkit and ARCHON which have been growing in popularity. Their assumption of EAD as the natural endpoint of collections has proven to be a boon to the standard. In turn, the easing the transition to EAD is also a reason for the popularity of these programs.

Overall, Frusciano is confident that the profession has admirably combated the significant barriers that surround the dissemination of a national standard - particularly one that requires some new technical skills like EAD. He assuredly proclaims that “…we are in the midst of the next wave of EAD implementation…,” and that, “The challenges and obstacles faced by the early implementers of EAD related to the technical tasks of encoding and the display of finding aids. But the experience and results of these initial efforts has essentially eliminated many of these problems.” 5 He is describing the maturation of a new standard - the point where its adoption is no longer arduous, but almost reflexive. However, while Frusciano is rightly celebrating the newfound capability of archivists to use XML in archival representation, this assumes EAD will-and should-be cemented as a permanent process. In fact, this development should draw great concern. EAD is now a benchmark for repositories to be satisfied with their online presence: it seems that any EAD display is acceptable and even impressive within the field. Full implementation is highly valued with little concern for utility. Thus, momentum towards maturity may be more of an argument for reexamination rather than blind advancement. We have the example of the MARC standard to warn us to the incredible permanence of a mature standard. Its use has become widespread, yet this prevalence proves it to be incredibly resistant to improvement or change. Such success with EAD may come with similar problems.

Through much of its early history, the profession pushed forward with EAD without significant focus on its utility to users. Jihyun Kim offered a relatively early critique of online finding aids, by focusing on the presented content from a user’s point of view. The author took a sample of one random finding aid from the 17 of the 161 institutions of the Research Library group who used EAD. A content analysis was performed that examined variation among the finding aids in five major categories: data elements, labeling terminology, navigational aids, browsing arrangement, and search features. 6 The author’s hypothesis suggests that inconsistencies are detrimental to the utility of EAD finding aids. As she argues, “…variances in local practice result in rendering the EAD finding aids online in diverse ways causing problems for both end users and archivists wanting to create databases of finding aids across repositories.”7 She highlights these irregularities and offers some small suggestions for fixing them.

The author separated her five points of examination into three aspects. First, she looked at the use of data elements in online EAD finding aids and their popularity. The most popular tags were physical description (), title proper (), unit title (), and biography or history (), each used 15 or 16 out of a possible 17 times. Jihyun is disturbed that the wide use of both the title proper and unit title tags may lead to redundancy and confusion. The duplication of date () and unit date () drew the same concern. Administrative tags, like access restrictions (), acquisition information (), and preferred citation () enjoyed mixed use and the author laments that the controlled access headings tag () was rarely user. Overall, the findings proved to confirm the supposition that there is significant variation among the use of EAD elements. Jihyun argues that some tags are underutilized - particularly the controlled access headings. This limits the number of access points - what she believes is the greatest utility of EAD. While more access points-as we will discuss-may help users, her faith in subject headings in particular may be misplaced as we will see below.

Next, Jihyun looked at interface design, particularly labeling terminology and navigational aids. She found that the language used to label EAD fields for the user to be inconsistent, suggesting that, “Users might be confused if the naming of labeling terminology is not consistent with the content.” 8 She then argues that, since EAD is only a data structure standard, a related data content standard is needed. This problem has since been fixed by the development of Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), which offers consistent vocabulary for finding aids and is readily transferred to EAD. However, as we shall see, the use of DACS in EAD may have worsened usability issues.

For navigation, Jihyun discussed the use of four features: expand/collapse functions, back-and-forth indicators, back-to-top links, and frames. 9 The most common feature was the use of frames - namely to construct navigational link toolbars. This allows both content and context to be displayed in a single window. Expand and Collapse functions were also used in over half of finding aids. This feature allows users to view both higher and lower levels of more complex hierarchies while avoiding irrelevant information from other lower levels. Back-and-forth and back-to-top links were seen less, used in five and two examples respectively. Five EAD finding aids offered no navigational features whatsoever, leading to the display of long narratives and seemingly endless container lists. Jihyun criticizes the lack of navigational utilities, positing that long finding aids by themselves make it difficult to find content and easy to get lost among the countless pages.

Finally, the author studied the accessibility of these 17 EAD finding aids from their repositories’ web pages. 16 of the 17 sites offered some sort of inventory of finding aids to browse. These were commonly alphabetical, with ten sites sorting by collection title and five by creator name. One site seems to have offered a variety of ways to sort, such as by repository, date, or collection number. Jihyun bemoans the failure of many of these sites to be explicit in their sorting methods. She then argues that while browsing can be useful, it is a usually time-consuming task-particularly in repositories with a long list of collections-and that searching can be more helpful. Jihyun deems searching, “a growing necessity,” finding that seven out of the 17 sites offer this feature. She discusses the use of delimiters, results displays, and Boolean operators before concluding in general, that, “Even though searching would be an effective way of accessing EAD finding aids, less than half of the sampled web sides provided search functions.” Overall, she discovered that archivists can improve their EAD finding aids by offering more diverse access points, consistent terminology, more navigational aids, explicit browsing features, and search functions.

The exploitation of search is the topic of Xiaomu Zhou’s study which again finds the status quo in EAD finding aids to be drastically insufficient. While Xiaomu admits that the EAD structure has had a large impact in the field, she contends that it has not led to the development of useful search functions to improve access. She argues that, “EAD finding aids are in, and of themselves, only one element in enhanced online search systems,” and, “To fully realize the benefit of EAD finding aids, there must be a good underlying search strategy.” In other words, archivists have been satisfied with the mere encoding and presentation of finding aids with EAD - they need to realize that EAD does not promote accessible web pages from a navigational perspective. There must be additional access tools, particularly search functions that enable users to comfortably retrieve content.

Xiaomu examines the delivery functions of EAD information systems - particularly search. A content analysis was performed on 58 EAD finding aid delivery systems that were listed by the Library of Congress in December of 2003. The author looked at the types of search engines used, the availability of search options, and the display of search results and criticism was made based on popular Web design theory.

Overall, only 45 out of a possible 58 archival web sites offered search functions. A variety of types was represented, such as commercial search engines, freeware search engines, and database-based search. The author discussed each of these offerings in turn with the most features coming from the freeware.

Xiaomu argues that search options are the method that most fully exploits EAD’s structure. EAD divides its content by a number of elements, which should allow search engines to filter queries based on certain elements. Unfortunately, only about half of the 45 search functions offered multiple options for searching, and even these were inconsistent in practice. Thus, she concludes that the possible search benefits of EAD are wholly underutilized. Search functions of EAD finding aids receive similar marks on their display of results. The author found that, “Nearly half of the websites with search systems did not organize their retrieval results very well.”10 She argues that archivists must take the design of results display seriously, “…because display really influences the efficiency of the entire system.” 11 The author continued to criticize the lack of advance search features, like feedback for zero results or mobility between search and browsing. Still, these relatively minor features were only represented in about half of search systems.

It is clear that search functions of EAD finding aids are not up to snuff. Xiaomu concludes that, “…the functionality of search systems on web sites varied considerable, and the advantages of EAD finding aids for hierarchical searching have not been fully realized. She continues to charge that archivists have focused more on the implementation of EAD than on the delivery of encoded information, as laments that many have outsourced this more important process. While there are certainly feasibility issues here, that does not excuse archivists for being oblivious to the actual delivery of their online content.

Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland is perhaps the first critic to the way EAD is being used to present online finding aids. She sees EAD as having the enormous potential to help archivists reexamine archival information systems. In order to deflect opposition to her suggestions she first discusses why finding aids were developed in the traditional format and then shows how EAD aids these purposes. Then, she details some basic requirements of online information systems. Finally, in light of these two discussions she offers ten suggestions to redesign online finding aids.

According to Gilliland-Swetland, archival finding aids developed into their current state to serve three primary purposes. First, finding aids served to document provenance and original order and to authenticate the existence of material. This helps makes collections permanent entities and documents changes such as accruals. These concerns led to the finding aid’s hierarchical structure. She details how, “Finding aids proceed from the general-an overview description of a collection-to the specific-a description at the lowest level of analysis, most commonly the file level but potentially the individual document (i.e., item-level)-all while reflecting the native arraignment of the archival materials.”12 EAD can accomplish this and more. She discusses how structure is required, as non-compliant pages will fail to display, and how templates can be used to ensure completeness and consistency. She then lists a number of EAD elements that help authenticate and document by specifying things like accruals () or custodial history (). The archival reference () element in particular allows for even more documentation of contextual linkages than is possible with a paper finding aid. The traditional finding aid was locked into its traditional physical form to ensure authenticity and documentation, but one elements are encoded they can be displayed in different ways whilst still retaining contextual relationships.

The traditional finding aid was also developed to be a collections management tool as archivists have long used them to store internal information. In EAD, there are elements for administrative information (), restrictions ( or ), acquisitions information (), and processing information (). These can also be directed to apply to only select material within a collection. In fact, in the traditional format, irrelevant collection management information could confuse users. Now, sensitive or extraneous information may be hidden from user eyes whilst still being available to the archivist.

The final function performed by the traditional finding aid was its use as in information discovery and retrieval tool. It has been used for both browsing and known-item searching by both archivists and users. However, Gilliland-Swetland charges that, “Consideration of user needs in terms of effectively carrying out thee activities has not traditionally been factored into the design of the finding aids.”13 She continues to accuse archivists of long describing to their own needs rather than the needs of their users. Thus, finding aids have been long organized primarily by provenance and original order rather than subject. This extensive contextual information is often not valued by users, and when it is-as in the case of academic historians-these users often come prepared. While they still need reassurance of this information, this goal is secondary to finding the content they need. The most common approach is known-item searches, which archivists have not valued. In fact, the author charges that “…the traditional finding aid makes direct, de-contextualized access to archival materials close to impossible.” Description at the lower levels is often the lowest priority even though this level is most important for known-item searching.

There are, however, legitimate reasons for finding aids’ insufficiency in information discovery. One is the cost of description at lower levels. Another reason is that archivists have needed create universal access tools that were used to describe a wide range of archival material. Hierarchies have been used in order to simply and easily organize this variable and organic material whilst preserving the original order. Gilliland-Swetland sees the online finding aid as having the immense potential to create an effective information delivery system that is still feasible despite these uniquely archival challenges. She argues that, “The materials-centric and the user-centric approaches can now be simultaneously addressed, if not reconciled, through thoughtful design of EAD-based archival information systems.”14

The piece continues to profile the needs of potential archival user groups in order to make these behaviors readily possible in online finding aids. Academic historians need contextual information, but that requirement is often secondary to discovery. While they require the maintenance of original order, more access points would be helpful. Institutional administrators need to search by subject or perform known-item searches to reference specific materials for content or recall documents for legal use. K-12 teachers now need to use primary source material in the classroom. They need easy access to visual materials at the lower level and the ability to then discern contextual information. Genealogists require administrative histories in order to locate where certain records may be housed. They also need to be able to search and retrieve at the lower level and would be helped by name and date access points. Other features they enjoy are genealogical guides of know people and collaborative web spaces to share their findings.

From this discussion Gilliland-Swetland makes ten suggestions for improving online archival information systems. He takes an idealistic approach with little concern for feasibility. This leads to proposals like linking between archival content and full-text secondary material. While her suggestions may be unmanageable, her approach is most valuable. This methodology is the inverse of the development of EAD the thinking of most archivists. The profession has long created inadequate access tools that required mediation by the archivists. In an online environment that intervention is quite difficult. However, that same online environment offers immense potential for archivists to redesign their problematic access tools. Gilliland-Swetland argues that, “In order to exploit the potential of EAD most fully… archivists must look beyond the current intellectual and physical form of the finding aid to a fundamental re-conceptualization of the role of archival metadata with in more inclusive archival information system.” 15 Despite her confidence in it, it is clear that EAD has not led to this change, but has served to continue archival access intransigence into the Internet age.

While the profession has long lacked effective user studies of its online EAD finding aids, the resent research of Joyce Celeste Chapman has yielded quite harsh criticism of their utility. She argues that archivists need direct and systematic interaction with users in order to understand their needs. Chapman’s reasoning for this is poignant. She argues that, “As archivists work to refine finding aid web displays, it is important to remember that the goals of descriptive standards should not and do not include display. User needs and the principles of web design, rather than the structure of the EAD XML standard, should dictate how finding aids are displayed.”16

To understand users’ interaction with online EAD finding aids, Chapman performed a usability study for the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. The interaction of twelve participants with online finding aids was examined. This group consisted of six experienced archives users and six novice users. The study asked how users interest and use online displays, how fast are new users able to learn, and what necessary features are missing from online archival information systems?17

The study showed that, understandably, experience in both internet usage and archives helped users successfully navigate finding aids. In fact, internet proficiency was the most important aid to users. The system did little to support known-item searches and users were forced to rely on the bowser search function (ctrl+F) which explained the utility of internet proficiency. Series titles were extensively relied upon and when these titles reflected the format of material rather than “aboutness” users were confounded. Reactions to the experimental navigation features were mixed, but the author offered the hope the some more user-friendly tools may help alleviate the difficulty users have with hierarchies. Neither the novice nor the experienced users saw subject headings as helpful in any sense. Archival terminology without context was confusing to users. In fact, as Chapman states, “Complaints about terminology were one of the largest issues that arose during the study.”18 This calls the role of DACS in online archival information systems into doubt. Despite Jihyun Kim’s calls for a content standard, it seems that this terminology may be detrimental to the usability of online finding aids.

Perhaps most importantly, Chapman found that the lack of an in-page search option was extremely problematic to all users. For known-item searches, users prefer immediate search and avoided the large blocks of contextual information that are most prominent in almost all finding aids. In fact, Chapman even found that, “…when a search function is not available, rather than attempt to navigate in any other way some users would rather move up a level in the site’s hierarchy to where there is a search, even though this takes them further from their known goal.” 19 For known-item searching, which makes of a large amount of information needs, search is a life raft to users, and if a finding aid does not supply one they will consider this unacceptable.

Chapman’s study is a great start at challenging current online archival information systems with user experiences. From even these relatively small insights into user behavior it is already clear that our archival finding aids are not effective in meeting user wants and needs. The author is correct in asserting that only though the experiences of users can archivists learn the knowledge they need to develop more effective systems that take advantage of the Internet for the profession.

In this spirit, J. Gordon Daines III and Cory L. Nimer offer a radical new take on the structure of online archival finding aids. They despair that EAD finding aids, in their current popular form, have, “…created an access barrier to the materials they describe.” 20 Instead, the authors suggest a reevaluation of online archival information systems based on user studies their expectations of search tools. They argue that, “In order to encourage use of our materials, archivists need to employ principles of user-centered design to ensure that our interfaces are transparent and meet our users’ needs.”21 Yet, the authors lament how little progress has been made in interface design since the development of EAD. Online archival finding aids must look and act like most other information systems on the web. New findings from user studies have revealed serious insufficiencies in finding aid interfaces. In order to meet these standards, Daines III & Nimer argue that single-level display-or a discrete web page for each archival level-is necessary.

The authors disparage archivists’ unrelinquishing love of document-based displays. This intransigence is furthered by the popularity of Archivist’s Toolkit and ARCHON - both of which, “…have been developed with a document-based view of EAD files.”22 The authors continue to discuss two more obscure collection management tools, PLEADE and ICA-AtoM-the only ones that help to build single-level displays-in an attempt to popularize this approach.

Daines III & Nimer have used these critiques of typical online finding aids to offer a radical new take on an archival information system at BYU. All of their pages follow popular Web design principles in that they avoid using large blocks of text and long, scroll-heavy lists. Instead, the necessary contextual information is offered, not at the beginning of the finding aid, but directly next to the content to which it pertains. Their main page emphasizes keyword search, and the advanced search is able to search at the collection, series, sub-series, or file level - or users can select to search only digitized materials that are available online. The information from what was the scope and content note is now spread out and available at the pages of lower levels. The authors succinctly argue that short descriptors at the collection level are actually in accordance with DACS. Some information from the collection level-such as restrictions or repository information-“cascades” down and is again available at lower levels. Archival context is preserves in a scrollable hierarchy window on the right hand side of series-level pages, yet is not the primary navigational focus.

The authors conclude that, while this new model is far from perfect, they believe is the step in the right direction. Daines III & Nimer argue that we need to spend less time attempting to educate users on how to use our obscure tools and more time designing self-explanatory online finding aids that follow the same design principles as the rest of the web. Only the creation of easily accessible online archival information systems can we fully exploit the vast potential of the internet to grow the use of archives. Perhaps the best argument Daines III & Nimer make is that encoding gives us the ability to innovate - to relinquish our traditional ways and actually develop useful ways of delivering archival material over the Internet.

One can make a few simple and resource-cheap suggestions for online finding aids based on these very significant critiques of current practices. The first is to explain to users that the purpose of an online finding aid is not necessarily to deliver online content. This makes finding aids quite unique in an online environment and users should not be expected to know as much. Perhaps a red or green button could state it that finding aid contains online material or not. The button could link to either a page that details specifically how to find the digitized material or a page that deliberately explains the expense and technical difficulties in providing online content to all materials. The second suggestion is to adopt Daines III & Nimer’s idea of distinct pages for every level of hierarchy above the file level. This, coupled with a left-hand navigation bar will help users to navigate complex hierarchies in a more comfortable fashion. The third suggestion is to spread out the contextual information to the lower levels where it directly applies. The primary scope and content note would be a simple statement that gives a rough description of what the materials are. A link to “more information” brings users to a discrete page which contains that entire scope notes for every level of the collection. This more detailed information will also be offered at the series and subseries levels. Where large amounts of information are needed, bullet points will replace long paragraphs. The forth suggestion is that the containers lists at the series or sub series level, will be collapsible, and in their collapsed form will give not only the container number, but a concise descriptor. This will be particularly useful for alphabetical series. Thus the collapsed containers would read, “Box 34 - Def-Gai,” “Box 35 Gal-Jer,” etc. This will allow for navigation in the collapsed display. The forth suggestion is that archival terminology be given context when there is none. While this may contradict DACS, it is necessary to ensure users understand section titles. Thus, “Provenance” might read “Provenance (origins of material).” While this may be uncomfortable to some archivists, the result would be to better educate users to concepts like provenance. These few minor suggestions should be fairly easy to implement and will make significant strides towards increasing the accessibility of online finding aids.

Now, the problem we face is that EAD is only compatible with some of these changes. The solution may be to limit the technical role of EAD to coincide with its intended use. EAD is a data format standard, nothing more. Why is it commonly used for display? Perhaps the primary problem of using EAD to display content is that the interface will always look outdated. Today, many EAD finding aids look as if they are from the late 1990s. This is because general web design makes interface and design advances much faster that the profession can design new XML style sheets. We should treat EAD like a data format standard–like a set of machine-readable fields–and let general HTML manage the interface and display. The HTML interface can be a template that can link to a set EAD file for content. This will allow archivists to continually develop more sophisticated and user-friendly information systems while keeping pace with the general web community. As Daines III & Nimer argue, EAD enables us to innovate, and using EAD to structure online display prevents us from doing just that.


Chapman, Joyce Celeste. “Observing Users: An Empirical Analysis of User Interaction with Online Finding Aids.” Journal of Archival Organization 8:1 (January 2010): 4-30.

Daines III, J. Gordon, and Cory L. Nimer. “Re-Imagining Archival Display: Creating User-Friendly Finding Aids.” Journal of Archival Organization 9:1 (January 2011): 4-31.

Frusciano, Thomas J. “Ten Years After”: The Next Wave of EAD Implementation.” Journal of Archival Organization 5:3 (July 2007): 1-8.

Gilliland-Swetland, Anne J. “Popularizing the Finding Aid: Exploiting EAD to Enhance Online Discovery and Retrieval in Archival Information Systems by Diverse User Groups.” Journal of Internet Cataloging 4:3/4 (July 2001): 199-225.

Jihyun, Kim. “EAD Encoding and Display: A Content Analysis.” Journal of Archival Organization 2:3 (2004): 41-55.

Xiaomu, Zhou. “Examining Search Functions of EAD Finding Aids Web Sites.” Journal of Archival Organization 4:3/4 (July 2006): 99-118.


  1. Xiaomu Zhou, “Examining Search Functions of EAD Finding Aids Web Sites,” Journal of Archival Organization 4:3/4 (2006): 101. 

  2. Thomas J. Frusciano “Ten Years After: The Next Wave of EAD Implementation,” Journal of Archival Organization 5:3 (2007): 2. 

  3. Frusciano, 2. 

  4. Ibid., 3. 

  5. Ibid., 4. 

  6. Jihyun Kim, “EAD Encoding and Display: A Content Analysis,” Journal of Archival Organization 2:3 (2004): 41, 45. 

  7. Jihyun, 42. 

  8. Ibid., 51. 

  9. Ibid., 51. 

  10. Xiaomu, 112. 

  11. Ibid., 112-113. 

  12. Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland, “Popularizing the Finding Aid: Exploiting EAD to Enhance Online Discovery and Retrieval in Archival Information Systems by diverse User Groups,” Journal of Internet Cataloging 4:3/4 (2001):203. 

  13. Gilliland-Swetland, 207. 

  14. Ibid., 210. 

  15. Ibid., 221-222. 

  16. Joyce Celeste Chapman, “Observing Users: An Empirical analysis of User Interaction with Online Finding Aids,” Journal of Archival Organization 8:1 (January 2010): 5. 

  17. Chapman, 5. 

  18. Ibid., 18. 

  19. Ibid., 21. 

  20. J. Gordon Daines III & Cory L. Nimer, “Re-Imagining Archival Display: Creating User-Friendly Finding Aids,” Journal of Archival Organization 9:1 (2011): 4. 

  21. Daines III & Nimer, 5. 

  22. Ibid., 11.