Finding aids user interviews, December 2016

To assess habits, needs, and thoughts around finding aid systems for archival research, interviews with 8 frequent users were conducted in December 2016 through January 2017.

Screenshot of ARCHON finding aid
Screenshot of ARCHON system, January 2017

Interviews found consistent themes on subject headings, the amount of detail in finding aids, among others.

This project was done in collaboration with librarians at Fondren Library at Rice University to improve internal systems.

Interviews lasted from roughly 25 – 45 minutes. Participants were asked to use their own laptops/computers for the interview.

Interviews were semi-structured, where a set of questions were determined beforehand, but conversations were allowed to expand outside those questions.

After interviews, notes and recordings were used to create observations, which were then sorted into categories/themes in order to make conclusions and recommendations.

UH Libraries staff: You may access the full report, including raw observations, on the Libraries intranet.

Participants were professors, faculty, and/or PhD students. Departments covered include history, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Hispanic studies, English, and religious studies.


The following themes generalize across all participant observations.

  • Subject headings & metadata
  • Importance of detail in finding aids
  • Comments on browsing, searching, and/or discovery
  • Missing, incorrect, or otherwise bad information in finding aids
  • Finding aids as a pointer or starting point of research
  • Digitization being preferable but difficult for archivists
  • Using Google search or bookmarks to get to finding aids
  • Users getting lost or mistaken
  • Describing finding aids as either an “index” or “roadmap”

Other novel observations

  • Average satisfaction: 3.375 out of 5
  • Participant C was mistaken on what finding aids actually were, or at least had never used UH finding aids. When asked to locate a UH finding aid, they navigated to Databases and began searching in an EBSCO search. When an actual UH finding aid was pulled up, they said they’d never seen one before.

Rice findings

  • At the time of writing, Rice librarians interviewed 4 users on their finding aids systems to improve internal systems
  • 3 out of 4 Rice users navigated to TARO (Texas Archival Resources Online) when asked to locate finding aids, rather than navigating to Rice’s ArchiveSpace instance
  • All Rice users wanted expanded container lists, archivist contact info, browse by title as well as subject area, info needed to request materials, among other features
  • Other findings include users needing format information, collection sourcing/origin information, and information about other related archives around the globe (Participant C mentioned something similar)

Future finding aids systems…

  • Must have more detailed subject headers and/or topical organization than they do now
  • Must have enough detail to aid the researcher’s ultimate questions: Should I use this for my research? Should I go visit and pull this collection/box from the archive?
  • Should allow for keyword and subject search/filtering, as well as searching within collections
  • Should provide clear links to digitized materials, if any
  • Would be aided by digital record-keeping features, e.g. advance requesting, bookmarking features, history, etc.
  • Would be aided by clear archivist contact info and collection location info

Next steps

New features will be explored as a response to these findings to find ways to better meet the needs of finding aid users.

Future research may include follow-up interviews or usability testing.

This project was a collaboration that included

Debra Kolah , Head of User Experience, Fondren Library at Rice University
Amanda Focke, Assistant Head, Special Collections, Fondren Library at Rice University
Amanda Thomas, User Experience/Public Services Librarian, Fondren Library at Rice University
Denis Galvin , Interim Director of Information Technology, Fondren Library at Rice University