Behind-the-Scenes With Abigail Huang Reference Archivist!
Grace Ho 3 years ago 4 min. read
We are happy to launch our first interview with the staff of NAS. Join us behind the scenes as we chat with Abigail Huang, our reference archivist who is no stranger to those who write in or call in or visit us at the Archives Reading Room.
Abigail Huang (right), our reference archivist, in conversation with one of our regular researchers Ms Khoo Ee Hoon (left)
What do you do as a reference archivist?
As a reference archivist, I try my best to help people find the information they are looking for. I do this while answering queries via phone and email, or in person if I’m on duty at the Archives Reference Room (ARR) counter. If the query is simple, I can directly refer them to collections or services in NAS, or suggest they approach other institutions. However, the process might also involve asking them a whole lot more questions (the “reference interview”) to find out more about their needs, or introducing them to search tools and databases so that they can continue exploring on their own.
If the material that the researcher wants to consult is held by NAS, we will then facilitate their request by providing copies of the records for viewing at the Archives Reading Room and we may also have to approach third parties to get permission for the researcher to access material. We work together with our colleagues from the various departments to make the records accessible as soon as possible. While much of my job is done at a computer and by sending lots of emails, sometimes the job can seem like it involves an inordinate amount of fiddling with ARR’s microfilm machines and printers which seem to need attention on regular basis.
What’s the most satisfying thing about your job?
I really enjoy the direct interaction with the users and being able to see that the records are useful to them in their work and their lives. For example, when a PhD student finds a fact that helps in her thesis research, or when someone finds his school attendance record and is then eligible for course to upgrade his skills. To know that the provision of all these records by NAS (which is also thanks to much back-end work from the non-public facing sides of NAS over the years) makes a difference in people’s lives is a great motivator and inspiration each day. It’s really great too when we build relationships with our researchers over time, and get to know them better and they give us feedback (both good and bad). ARR researchers can be really helpful, helping each other with microfilm machine problems or sharing information with each other if they have overlapping areas of expertise. While we try our best to help researchers, it’s also delightful to see researchers help us!
What are some of the challenges?
In an age of instant access to information from the internet, the expectations that researchers come in with can often be quite different from what NAS can currently provide. For example, while NAS has made great strides in making collections like maps and oral history more accessible online, much of it still isn’t online and can only be consulted onsite on microfilm. And the record is handwritten. Moreover, our records are retrieved by staff (and are not on open shelves like the library), and the response times when there are permissions to sought are definitely not instant. And while NAS staff are used to answering general enquiries, we aren’t experts in every topic and often the researcher is the one who will have much more knowledge on the topic they are seeking information on.
Overall, I hope that people see that NAS staff are their advocates. We do see that there are improvements and changes to be made to make more information available to all and are working behind the scenes to make things happen. Another challenge would be juggle the requests, which come in daily, with the other parts of my job (some of which has little to do with being a reference archivist).
What is the most common thing you say in the course of your work?
“How can we help you?” and “Thank you!” Being a reference archivist is really a “service professional” role where one deals with members of the public. It’s really important to do our best to help them (subject to policies!) in a polite and friendly manner at all times, even if, few and far between, some of them make us want to pull some hair out. We’ve all had experiences with bad service and I hope that people won’t have (too many) stories of those from NAS.
I would say that I really like sharing with people about our Oral History Collection as it’s such a fascinating collection of stories spoken by the people who lived them. Although everyone is interviewed under a particular theme or project (eg Education in Singapore, Vanishing Trades etc), because of the life history approach taken in the interviews, most people touch on many other topics such as their childhood which just makes the collection so much richer. It’s quite an unusual thing for a National Archives to have an oral history programme and Singapore’s is one of the best out there. Of course it doesn’t hurt that my grandfather was interviewed under the programme too.
What are the qualities of your ideal archives?
In an ideal archives, everyone (staff and researchers) would be willing to help each other and not try to protect their own little piece of territory/information. Also, all the information would be online, in a keyword searchable format, and organised so that it would be easy to discover related and relevant material. And nothing would ever get lost!