Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Hill, Michael R. 1999. “Archival Orientation Interviews as Social Interactions.” Invited paper presented to the American Library Association/Society of American Archivists Joint Panel: Reassessing the Reference Interview. Annual Meeting of the American Library Association, Hotel Intercontinental, New Orleans, Louisiana, June 27.


Copyright 1999 Michael R. Hill


For social scientists, every orientation interview is inherently an opportunity for systematic observation, analysis, and critique. Consider, by way of contrast, a hypothetical committee of mathematicians who visit archival repositories searching for documentary materials to display during the upcoming centennial celebration of the Mathematics Department at their home university. As mathematicians, orientation interviews are simply means to their pragmatic ends. For social scientists, however, especially for qualitative sociologists such as myself (Hill 1993), the situation is more complex. For some of us, every social interaction is potentially a source of sociological insight (Deegan and Hill 1987). Thus, every orientation interview has a double character: first, it is a means to some ostensibly archival end, such as that pursued by the aforementioned mathematicians (and I suggest this is, in fact, the primary frame of mind in which nost socjal scientists visit archiva1 repositories). But, second, the orientation interview can become a primary focus of attention in and of itself, as a social interaction worthy of study and observation in its own right. It is this facility for stepping back from the transactions of ordinary day-to-day life to directly observe and study ourselves and others as we engage in myriad social interactions -- interactions, such as orientation interviews, that most folks routinely and unquestioningly take for granted -- that characterizes qualitative sociological 'inquiry. In short, qualitative sociologists are trained observers of our shared human dramas (Deegan 1989, 1998). Here, as a qualitative sociologist who also pursues archival research, my assigned task is to reflect on my direct, participatory observations of orientation interviews in archival repositories.