Anything new here for archives? “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians”

Ithaka S+R’s Research Support Services for Scholars program has released the report of their NEH-funded study, Supporting the Changing Research Practices of HistoriansHere’s a brief description of the project from the report’s Executive Summary:

In 2011-2012, Ithaka S+R examined the changing research methods and practices of academic historians in the United States, with the objective of identifying services to better support them. Based on interviews with dozens of historians, librarians, archivists, and other support services providers, this project has found that the underlying research methods of many historians remain fairly recognizable even with the introduction of new tools and technologies, but the day to day research practices of all historians have changed fundamentally. Ithaka S+R researchers identified numerous opportunities for improved support and training, which are presented as recommendations to information services organizations including libraries and archives, history departments, scholarly societies, and funding agencies.

I approached reading the report with two questions in mind. First, is there anything here that’s new for archivists? Second, is there anything that should be here that isn’t? In other words, is there any advice from the world of archives to historians on how they may be able to better support their research?

First I should say that I think the report is well worth reading, for archivists and librarians, in both academic and non-academic settings.  (It’s not that long and the writing flows well. It’s an easy read.) And I want to applaud the study’s authors for their approach and their effort to include librarians and archivists among their interview subjects. (Although, based on the list provided in Appendix A, it’s not clear to me how many of the Research Support Professionals interviewed were people who have direct recent experience working in an archives or professional archival training.)

But, is there anything new here for us? In my opinion, no. The report’s six “Recommendations to Archives” (p. 42) could probably have been predicted by any savvy group of archivists. They are, with my commentary added:

1. More online finding aids. 

The recommendation takes the view that it’s preferable to have some level of description of all collections rather than more detailed description of only some collections. However, in the report itself there is discussion about the value of “good” finding aids in helping historians determine if a visit to an archives is necessary. However, given the choice it would seem historians would rather know the totality of collections that exist rather than have more detailed information about just some of them.

2. More digitization. 

This, like the previous one, is not a surprising recommendation. Almost all users of archives want more materials available online. The recommendation also suggests that archives may be able to work with historians to have the digital images they create in the course of their research shared with the archives and so made accessible to other researchers. This idea has been tossed around in the past, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of an instance where such an arrangement has worked. Anyone have any success stories? If there are good models for this, perhaps we archivists could develop some guidelines to share with historian/researchers to help facilitate the process? That could be a worthwhile effort, perhaps.

3.  Unified or centralized online discovery tools. 

We’ve heard this in the past. Researchers want to be able to search for descriptions of archival collections via centralized search tools, rather than having to rely on Google. I’ll let those with more expertise in the cataloging domain attempt to explain why that’s not already happened. My guess is that the structural and organizational factors that have prevented this happening in the past (other than NUCMC, which was never comprehensive either) will continue to prevent it from happening in the future, especially in regard to “small, local, and obscure archives and collections.”  Am I being too pessimistic? Is this part of the goal of the new Digital Public Library of America project, or is that only supposed to guide people to digital collections, not information about collections?

4. “The expertise of the research archivist.” 

I’m not sure I understand what this recommendation is trying to say, but I think the intent is to encourage the active participation of archivists with both the historians who use their collections and the larger scholarly community who might be interested in their repository’s records. If I’m correct, then this is consistent with the concept of the archivist as active participant that I’ve talked about in relation to the way I define participatory archives. It’s also consistent with the concept of “archives as platform” that I talked about at the Economies of the Commons 3 conference this fall in Amsterdam. (I must get those slides online!) The recommendation states in part:

Archivists can play a patron services role in working with historians, and they should be afforded the time and other resources needed to serve researchers in this role.

Ah, there’s the rub! There are a great many things that archivists should be afforded the time and other resources to do. Obviously I’m a supporter of this being a priority, but it’s just one priority out of many and historians are only part of the user community for most archives.

5. Facilitate the use of digital cameras and scanners. 

This seems like a bit of no-brainer, although I am always surprised by conversations on the listserv that reveal there are still archives that do not allow or encourage users to create their own digital copies of materials. So perhaps the reminder is needed, although elsewhere the study acknowledges that some archives are dependent on revenue generated by charging for copies. What is new here is the added recommendation that archives provide “instruction on best practices for capturing and organizing images.” That’s an interesting one. I wonder how many historians would actually be interested in receiving this kind of instruction? Certainly most archivists would be qualified to give it.

6. Training PhD students in the use of archives. 

I have no doubt that many archives have offered to provide this kind of training, and I also have no doubt that those offers have often been declined. I’m not arguing that this is a bad recommendation, just that for it to be successful historians and other scholars would need to recognize the limits of their own expertise. I suspect that many scholars, including historians, think they themselves are experts in how to use archives, and so are the most qualified to train their own students. I do not mean that scholars do not have useful knowledge about working in archives to share with their students, but that I hope they also recognize that a professional archivist has expertise and perspective that a researcher will not have.

There is a trend in the report, quite pronounced in regard to librarians, towards a seeming lack of appreciation of the expertise of information professionals. In general the report is very appreciative of the role archivists play in the research process, and the invaluable assistance they often give.

The role of the archivist is critically important to historians’ research processes. These research support professionals emerged as the primary collaborators and colleagues of the historians interviewed; they are often intimately involved in helping scholars achieve their research goals. . . .  Because these archivists are typically deeply knowledgeable of the content of their collections, and have their own networks of research support professionals, they are well-positioned to connect history scholars to additional resources. As noted above, many interviewees rely on archivists to inform and direct their research practice, and they often see them as a primary supporter and teacher when it comes to working with primary sources. [p. 10]

Given this glowing rhetoric, I was surprised that in the section on discovery of primary sources (p.15-16) there was no discussion of asking an archivist for help in locating materials in other collections. Archivists are not just specialists in our own collections. Most are also knowledgeable about finding relevant materials in other collections and in the online tools available to help facilitate that search.

There is more that could be said, but as this post is getting long, I’ll wrap up with a short response:

Thank you for providing this information, which reinforces and supports the direction most archives are already taking and the level of service we are attempting to provide. This report may be useful to some archivists in advocating for policy changes and for increased or at least sustained funding. If historians want archivists to able to provide this kind of support, the most important thing they can do is to help us advocate and lobby for increased funding. Historians have traditionally been very effective partners in advocating for archives, but this needs to happen at every level–institutional, local, regional, state, national and international. This report clearly states that most historians use archives that are not located at their own institutions. Cuts to your own institution’s archives or the local archives or your state archives may not affect you directly, but they will certainly affect one of your colleagues someday. When you are talking with your friendly neighborhood archivist about your research, please remember to ask what you can do to help advocate for archives. We can’t help you if you don’t help us.

Ok, the last sentence does sound a little bit too much like a PBS pledge drive, but the point stands.

What about you, archivists, anything here that surprises you? Anything here that I didn’t highlight that you want to point out?

*One additional note: There were complaints in the report about slow response times (or no response at all) to inquiries from archivists and librarians. I’m sure this was really about librarians, but just in case, it may be good policy to respond to all requests letting the patron know when they may expect a response.


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