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