The Next Step: Outreach on the World Wide Web

A paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists, June 6, 1997, Cheyenne, Wyoming. <>

Terry Abraham
Head, Special Collections and Archives
University of Idaho Library
Moscow, ID 83843-2351


Establishing an archival presence on the World Wide Web is an effective and economical form of outreach. Unlike printed materials there are no production costs and no left over inventory. Unlike lectures there is no scheduling, no prima donna speaker, no invitations, and no caterers. And unlike exhibits, there is no physical presence to monitor and protect. In addition, a web site is available, to those with the equipment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at no additional cost. Plus, it is infinitely and immediately updatable, upgradable, and enhanceable.

Been There, Done that

The traditional means of archival outreach have included exhibits, special events, lectures, activities, publications, and audiovisual presentations. (Pederson, Ann E. and Gail Farr Casterline. Archives & Manuscripts: Public Programs. Chicago, SAA, 1982. pp. 26-38.) In the last fifteen years or so, we've been increasingly exhorted to be proactive about getting the word out about archives (as if we weren't doing that before). Studies of resource allocators have demonstrated that what we hope people know about us is very different than what they do know about us; the recent Benton Foundation report is a good example of that disparity. <>

While it easy for some to say archivists don't do enough outreach, it is, for the archivist, a matter of measuring priorities and responses. When I program a lecture or a reception and ten or twelve people show up, I have to wonder whether my time was well spent. Some years back I devised a scheme to test the usefulness of two big display cases on the outside wall of Special Collections facing the heavily used library reserve reading room. I would put up an exhibit or display but I also included a measurement tool. Placards suggested that interested viewers visit Special Collections for more information or prizes were offered for answering simple questions about the exhibit. At other times I just watched to see who was looking at the cases. The response was underwhelming.

After a couple of months I decided that the effort of creating these exhibits, in relation to all other tasks, was not a high priority. And, when we planned a new building, I purposefully did not include any exhibit facilities knowing that our staff would probably never get large enough to make it cost effective.

When I compare such rather meager results with the 35 hits per day on the Special Collections Web site (approximately 7500 viewers since last June), I begin to see a way to work smarter not harder.

A Web Site for Special Collections

In 1994, the computing center on campus made it possible to establish a gopher or web site on their server. I had my doubts about the gopher server, it seemed that files need to be converted and sent to a technician who would mount them on the server. An arcane process, one I did not want to learn, and one that they were not encouraging me to learn. But the html protocol was something different. They were quick to encourage people and emphasized how easy it was to set up a web site.

Finding Web Content in the Archives

When I began to think about what I wanted to put out on the Web to represent our repository, I immediately thought of the brochures, handouts, guides, and inventories that we currently distributed. Almost all were in word processing form and were, therefore, available for digital manipulation. I am a strong believer in retaining electronic files for later use and reuse. I also mine the old files for paragraphs and phrases when necessary. This work is aided by the search function in my word processor software. The basic description of the collection exists as a handout that we had originally duplicated by photocopying on colored paper. <>

If we had started from scratch, I would have devoted a lot of time to considering the "best" way to present things on the web. Is a hierarchical subject approach easier to use? Can we help the user navigate by developing a "geographical" model; organizing things by location, as some Internet shopping malls have attempted. Do we need a virtual reference desk, reading room, stack area, or conservation department to aid the user in getting around the text that we provide for their assistance? These are valid design questions, but ones that I skipped. I took what I had and threw it into a conversion and posted it for all to see. Organizational refinements will come later. And besides, at the University of Idaho, things are on a different scale than they are at, say, the National Archives.

But how to convert it to html (Hyper-Text Markup Language)? When I started this project, the tools available were very primitive and so I learned html the hard way. Now, I use an html converter that is an add-on to the word processor. It applies the correct codes and eases the process of converting the documents, in part through macros I have written. Because of its limitations, however, I do have to hand-code parts of the document myself. It is not capable of understanding the nearly obsolete <center></center> sequence, for example. I also use an html editor that I downloaded from the web, it simplifies the coding and viewing of the page.

The traditional way of learning html was to view the source code of a good page and learn from it. However, one commentator noted that this method should be called "defect replication." (Glen Blankenship <>, "Re: #### Somebody...teach me HTML please!!!!!! ", <comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html>, Sat, 20 Jul 1996 12:14:22) For more functional guidance, Sun Microsystems, Inc. has prepared an excellent guide, with additional links, to Web style at <>.

Incremental Add-ons

My intent in recoding existing text for the web was to do it simply and quickly. Accordingly, I have not bothered about stylistic niceties that I would worry over if the document was going to become enshrined in print for all time. These are provisional documents, in a sense. I can revise them and refine them continuously, but my purpose right now is to get them out there where they can be, even if haltingly, used. For an example, see <>.

I converted nearly 250 inventories and loaded them onto the web and am now in the process of tackling the OCR (optical character recognition) conversion of the 100 or so that were created before word-processors. This is in response to studies which indicate that researchers most want access to finding aids and descriptions. (See, for example, Daniel German's <> comments "re: Archives and the Net" to Robert Shuster <rshuster@DAVID.WHEATON.EDU> as posted in an email summary on Thu, 25 Apr 1996 10:21:48.)

I want to stress that I do not claim that the pages developed at the University of Idaho fulfill any or all of the goals usually identified for archival sites. My intent was to get stuff up quickly and inexpensively, without any extra expense except my own time. And my time has been very much occupied with this task over the past two and a half years. It was only last summer that I was able to go back and add some refinements and correct some errors in the first group of pages loaded; addressing, in the process, some of the criticisms raised by Bill Landis' article (Landis, William. "Archival outreach on the World Wide Web," Archival Issues, 20:2(1995)135). In the meantime, however, we had a web presence. There is no point, I reasoned, in waiting until everything is perfect; since perfection is never realized. (Abraham, Terry. Net Worth: Adding Value to the Archival Web Site, a paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, San Diego, August 30, 1996. <>)

Let's look at what we've put together at the UofI. <>.

Special Collections and Archives

University of Idaho Library

Moscow, Idaho 83844-2351 USA [Note Address & phone Number]



Digital Memories, Historic Artifacts from Special Collections

Introduction to Special Collections


Descriptions of Collections

Historical Photographs

Primary Sources

University Records

Wilderness Archives


Inventories, Lists, Bibliographies

Archives Inventories

Campus Buildings: A list

UI History: A bibliography

Genealogical Records in Idaho

Manuscripts Inventories

Mining Records: A supplementary listing

Pioneer Women of the West: A brief listing of holdings in Special Collections

Archives and Manuscripts: A short bibliography

Other Repositories of Primary Sources


About Special Collections and More

News of Special Collections and Archives

Search for a specific term or phrase

Guide for visitors

Holiday Schedules and Opening Hours {New}

Using Special Collections

The "No" in Special Collections

Donating to Special Collections

Special Collections Staff and Faculty

Library Associates at the University of Idaho

A Guide to Donating Your Personal or Family Papers to a Repository (SAA)

Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers (National Archives of Canada)

Web Sites and Web Sights

Bruce Bruemmer in his recent survey of archival web sites found less than half included traditional archival information such as collection descriptions and inventories. He added: "Still, the survey's results are clear: the Web, at this point in time, is predominantly used to convey information about repositories, not information held by the repositories." (Bruce H. Bruemmer, Archivist, Charles Babbage Institute, "An Analysis of World-Wide Web Sites For Archival Repositories" April 1997. Both, I would claim, are important to users.

As long ago as February 1995 Frank D. Jackson of Emory posted to the Archives & Archivists list a summary of archival use of the World Wide Web. (Frank D. Jackson <fjack01@EMORY.EDU>, "Internet Gems," Archives & Archivists <ARCHIVES@MIAMIU.BITNET>, Fri, 3 Feb 1995 10:11:45; see also William Landis, "Archival outreach on the World Wide Web," Archival Issues, 20:2(1995)129-147.) These suggest the range of information that can be placed on the web:

Non-Traditional Outreach on the Web

Aside from the exhibit/interpretive aspect of outreach, there are a number of other, more non-traditional, outreach activities that are enhanced by the use of the World Wide Web.

Promotional activities of a traditional nature can be given a boost by publicizing them through the institutional web page as well as through institutional and international listservs and newsgroups. Are you sponsoring a lecture or a fellowship? Publicize it easily on the web and through electronic announcements.

While reference functions are not often considered outreach, they do provide an opportunity for one-on-one promotion and dissemination. Don't we often promote additional services and collections in the course of a reference interview? The same is true of the e-mail inquiry. Do your e-mail messages include a signature line that identifies you and your institutional web page?

Our web pages have generated a small number of e-mail reference requests, often responding to specific information in an inventory or description. Others, more blind inquiries, can be referred to the web site for additional information. For some telephone inquiries I have asked if they have web access, and referred them to a web page, one of ours or perhaps one of yours. Letters requesting information can often be answered by referral to the web page and, if they include an email address, by mailing the page directly to them. In some cases, I've just run a printout of the page and mailed that, snail-mail.

One advantage of this reservoir of information about the collections and holdings is that it allows us to transfer the costs of reproduction off-site. While we cheerfully copy an inventory for a distant researcher, I'd much rather refer them to the web page and let them copy it out on their machine at their cost. And we've had researchers appear on our doorstep with a printout in hand, ready to go to work.

While the University of Idaho Library is a relatively small organization and Special Collections smaller still, we have found the internal use of our web page a significant outreach tool. Not only do other library staffers now have an opportunity to learn about our collection, but they can and do use the posted resources to answer questions posed to them. It is just another electronic resource to them, but one that has the added benefit of referring to local holdings. To a certain extent, this is true within Special Collections as well. We now can share our expertise to a greater extent during a time of required cross training and under-staffing. Relying on the web for some common answers also means that similar questions get standardized answers, not answers that are different depending on who is asked. We haven't quite got to the point of posting our file of common questions and their uncommon answers, but I have used some of those questions as jumping off points for our Digital Memories exhibits <>.


While I would not suggest that the Web will replace all other forms of outreach, it more than complements them. Much of what can be done and has been done can be replicated on the Web, easily and effectively, as a reinforcement if not the primary activity. And the potential reach of the web is far beyond what we have previously envisioned for outreach.

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