STATE ARCHIVES

ANNUAL REPORT, 2001

REFERENCE SERVICES


[color photograph, View of Search Room at State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland] Reference Services fulfills the State Archives' mission to provide access to the records permanently preserved by this agency. Government agencies and the general public conduct legal, historical and genealogical research using our holdings. To assist these patrons, Reference Services provides research on a fee-for-service basis, explains the records themselves, recommends research strategies, and provides reproductions. In the case of government agencies, Reference Services also provides direct access to the originating agency's own records.

View of Search Room, State Archives, Annapolis, Maryland, December 1999. Photo by Hillary Thomas.


Although traditional forms of communication, such as in-person visits, letters, and phone calls, are still extremely important, Reference Services increasingly relies on Internet technology to receive and fulfill reference requests. E-mail and digital reproductions are increasing dramatically. The Archives website and digitalization programs are crucial to making information about research available, and even providing access to the records themselves. Reference Services staff contribute to the descriptions and instructions found on the Archives' website, which is now the single most important source for information about this agency and its holdings. While other programs, such as the Archives of Maryland Online and plats.net, encompass large-scale digital delivery, Reference Services responses are tailored towards individual requests. In short, the emphasis is on service to individual patrons.

REFERENCE RESEARCH

During 2001, Reference Services set new records in the number of responses to patron requests, handling about 40,000 requests, a 10% increase over the previous year. While attendance in the Public Search Room declined slightly and the number of phone calls remained steady, mail and e-mail grew dramatically. This increase in demand was met by the smallest Reference Services staff since Reference became an independent activity at the Archives. Reference Services will close this year with a staff 25% smaller than when the current Director took over three years ago.

Digital solutions play a large part in Reference Services strategies for dealing with the increased demand and smaller staff. E-mail is the fastest growing segment of Reference Service demand. More than fifteen times as many e-mails inquiries will be received this year than last. Superior reproductions, especially of oversized items, are made through digital scanning, replacing our former reliance on often poor quality microfilm. For large-scale orders or for very large items, customers now are supplied with cds rather than paper copies. The Land Records request system delivered through plats.net now allows Reference Services to post high-quality images of land records when needed at the Baltimore County or Queen Anne's County Courts or by patrons needing those records. Telephone logs now are computer files, easier to enter, maintain and search. Patrons now receive documents that explain the outcome of research. Reference Services also improves the website, making our collections more accessible and understandable to our patrons.

Despite the vigorous routine workload, Reference Service staff was able to participate in educational programs that widened their perspectives and increased their familiarity with our legal holdings. Reference Archivists served as mentors to students in law classes co-taught by the State Archivist. These archivists gained more expertise in legal research and a better understanding of the appellant process. They also conducted in-depth research on specific topics, such as the State Seal, all going towards improvements in the Archives' website.

Much of the demand for reference services comes from government agencies, often requesting the temporary return of their files. The courts and local departments of social services have the most need of recent permanent records in our custody. National security issues and the Brady Bill on gun control created a steady flow of requests for criminal records. An increasing portion of demands for legal documents require accessing records that are stored off-site. These requests have challenged our ability to provide the rapid response to which we aspire, whether to return a file to an originating agency, or to reproduce it for private patrons. In the closing quarter of this year, we have established new procedures to better accommodate such requests.

In 2001, Reference Services encountered several serious challenges. The turn-over rate in the department caused by resignations (mostly due to pay and benefits), retirement, transfers to other departments, or separation from State service meant that nine (about half) of the Reference Service staff left the department this year. This trend continued that of several years past. From its reference staff, the Archives requires a high level of expertise which is impossible to develop if retention of qualified staff is not improved. Although each round of hiring attracts talented individuals capable of the work required, a great deal of time is lost in training and in gaining enough experience to perform efficiently.

The high turn-over rate, an inefficient computer tracking system, and the unavailability of management (the Director and Assistant Director both experienced health problems that led to prolonged absences this past year) contributed to a backlog of work and an extension of our turn-around time on routine orders. Legal requests all were handled within five working days, often the next day, but other requests required more than the advertised four to six weeks to complete. Efforts are being made to reduce all turn-around times to five days, but much needs to be done in the areas of personnel, equipment, and procedure.

Although Reference Services now is earning record amounts of income (partly due to a fee increase), financial pressures still are great. Retaining even veteran staff as regular employees seems unaffordable. Pay rates are low compared with federal service, or even neighboring states. The extensive work on federally mandated background checks is not funded or reimbursed. Without success, the Archives sought direct and indirect funding from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. To date, the demand for this work (1 FTE) has been absorbed by the agency, but will have to be shifted to the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS) program of the U.S. Department of Justice in our Search Room (since the Archives cannot afford to do this research without funding). Reference Services has the objective that all of its costs, including indirect and overhead, should be covered by General Fund allocation or Special Fund revenue.

VOLUNTEER PROGRAM

Since July 1992, a volunteer program has helped staff the Public Search Room at the State Archives. The patrons and historians who assist the Archives annually donate and save the State of Maryland, approximately two to three FTE man and salary hours. The Program ceertainly benefits from the interests and talents of researchers and genealogists of various backgrounds and specialties.

During 2001, volunteer contributions included significant research on the Underground Railroad in Maryland; a continued and increased presence, providing solid assistance, in the Search Room; processing of valuable collections (the Ridout Papers, for example); digital indexing of county indexes to the 1870 federal census; and creation of popular and efficient tools, such as the yellow block for microfilm users. The Archives enthusiastically welcomes Maryland residents to its volunteer corps.

Maryland State Archives