I’m just back from edUI, a conference of web professionals who work in educational institutions, held in Richmond, Virginia. As was the case last year, it was a gathering full of fascinating presentations given by excellent speakers. I was very honored (and more than a little intimidated) to present on some of the work we’ve done to improve DIMES. There was a lot of interest in what archivists do, and in bringing the worlds of user experience and archives in closer conversation, which I find very exciting.


A major theme that emerged for me from this year’s conference was how to make the best use of different kinds expertise. This came up in a number of presentations, from Stephen P. Anderson talking about the “toolbox” of designers to Amanda Costello’s wonderful presentation on working with faculty experts.

As multiple presenters expressed, effectively engaging with expertise starts with mutual recognition and respect. We all have areas in which we are experts, and there is not one kind of knowledge that is inherently superior to others. Some of us may know a lot about a particular historical subject, others may know everything there is to know about an organization’s record keeping practices, others may be experts in a particular technology. These are all valuable areas of expertise, and we can’t begin to employ each other’s strengths if we don’t start be recognizing and respecting the diversity of that expertise.

I think this has some interesting implications for our work as archivists. For example, I sometimes wonder how well we recognize our researcher’s expertise; certainly we value their knowledge of a particular academic discipline or subject field, but they may have additional knowledge we could benefit from. I know I’ve learned a lot about technology from talking to some of our researchers, many of whom are using some really innovative tools and methods to organize and manage their research.

I wonder how well we recognize and engage our own expertise as archivists. Sure, those of us who know a lot about a particular collection, or are proficient with specialized systems or technology, or who know how to handle unusual media formats feel like we have a particular expertise. But what about the skill of conducting an effective reference interview to understand a complex research inquiry? What about the ability to explain byzantine restrictions on access to material in clear and concise language? Or to help inform a researcher’s strategy by explaining the structure and organization of groups of records to them? Or the ability to relate to researchers from a variety of cultures, many of whom do not speak English as a first language? All of those things are very real and very vital areas of expertise, but I’m guessing we don’t often think of them as such.

Once we understand the strengths of our researchers, our fellow staff and ourselves, we’ll be better able to use those areas of expertise to shape the work that we do, and to allow us all to do work that is more fulfilling and more human.

Design for Mobile

Another major theme at the conference was designing with mobile devices in mind. My favorite presentation on the subject was Pamela Pavliscak’s talk on the ways in which people actually use their phones. There were a lot of numbers she listed that were somehow both unsurprising and completely terrifying, which you can see if you take a quick look through her slides.

Almost every presentation I went to made some mention of accounting for mobile devices in interfaces, and it’s clear mobile is now something that is very much part of any conversation about web design by default. Looking at our web analytics, the steady growth in traffic from users on mobile devices is one of the most noticeable trends over the past couple of years, and I can only assume that others are seeing this same trend as well. As a result, we’ve made a conscious decision any web-based system we implement here at the RAC has to be thoroughly tested on mobile devices.

A couple of other presentations I really liked:

  • A Brief History of Tomorrow – A tour through themes in futurism delivered by Matt Novak of Paleofuture, with the killer closing line “The future won’t come all at once and it won’t be in the form we imagined.”
  • Web Components: Back to the Future of UI/UX – A controlled way of creating reusable components for interaction on web pages. These still seem very hacky to me, but I’ve been told by People Who Know Things that they are the way of the future.
  • Becoming a Change Agent – A presentation that talked in depth about how to engage people within your institution in a change process.