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

  1. In regard to centralised Discovery in the UK we have the National Register of Archives, searchable for personal and company names. There’s also Archon which gives contact details for archival institutions. Both are on The National Archives’ website

  2. And by coincidence, this blog has been published today: Finding Archives: what’s next?. I shoudl also say that certinaly at present National Register of Archives entries do show up in Google, and our own catalogue entries within the Discovery system are found by Google too, so hopefully this will still be the case in the future.

  3. Good summary, Kate. I agree that the report is well worth reading and very readable.

    I see opportunities here for archival institutions and libraries to do macro education as well as micro education. Providing access to finding aids and explaining the scope of collections makes sense as a recommendation. As a former archivist and a historian, I would add that providing some big picture information about how material is acquired and what affects its accessibility would be helpful, too. If for no other reason than to manage expectations. Some of what we reference archivists used to explain face to face in our initial conversations with researchers could be made available online to provide context for users before they start their research. There always will be some sense of “why can’t I access this” or “when will you make this available.” But the earlier you can catch users on this sort of thing, the better, it seems to me.

    What strikes me most in reading your assessment and that of Trevor Owens is that the way historians and others who rely on archival collections use the web presents archival institutions with some opportunities to do outreach on multiple levels. This includes providing information that would enable stakeholders to better advocate for archives. There are special considerations here that I see as a federal employee and someone who works with records from the beginning of their life cycle that I won’t take the time to explore here. I don’t want to make this too TL: DR, ha.

    As you point out, archives traditionally have relied on users to advocate on their behalf. But those users have varied greatly in their degree of knowledge and situational awareness as to the conditions affecting repositories. Some advocacy has been helpful. Some not so much.

    In the past, there was a somewhat scattershot approach to helping researchers gain situational awareness. (Researchers differ greatly and obviously vary in the extent to which they seek context about repositories they visit, of course. Some are much more insular in outlook than others, that’s to be expected and can’t be controlled. Human nature.) Some of that knowledge used to come from establishing individual connections with staff and officials at archives and libraries and learning from talking to them. Some such knowledge came from their specific research experiences and asking questions about what records were available and what were not and why. Some came from interacting with other users and exchanging information about research experiences as well as from working with archivists and librarians.

    Where I worked at NARA back in the day, we gave all researchers equal treament, an egalitarian approach was the fairest approach. But the ones who took the time to talk to us and to develop situational awareness got an enhanced researcher experience. It wasn’t because of who they were in terms of status (a common misperception, at least as far as my unit was concerned). It came simply because they were curious and open to learning. If you look at the acknowledgments in books by Stephen Ambrose, Joan Hoff, Stanley Kutler, they display deep appreciation for the assistance the scholars received.

    They wanted to understand the why and how so they went beyond, “give me my stuff.” We learned about their needs and they learned about the conditions under which we worked, so definitely a win for both. There are elements which affect archival work that you can’t put on an official website. But much of what we used to convey in chatting with researchers could go up on the web and become reachable through search engines as part of scene setting and macro education. I see that as something many archival institutions and libraries could do.

    As we know, “it depends,” grin. Much depends on the size of an archival institution or library and how it handles accessions and collections development. Whether it takes in material through a process of statutory records management or through other means makes a big difference, too. So, too, does the nature of the records and the extent to which they require disclosure review for national security classified, for PII, for any number of potential restrictions. Budgets, staffing, prioritizing work assignments, size of backlog, ability to rely on external partners, all affect what repositories are able to make available online as digital and digitized records.

  4. Thank you for reviewing our report and recommendations and sharing them here. Our objective in this and upcoming discipline-specific projects is to analyze research support services needs from a scholar-centric perspective, and our recommendations were produced based on this scholar-centric method. Working with our advisory board, we concluded that it would be most helpful to organize our recommendations around different types of support providers, such as archives. I agree with your view that there is less new in those recommendations specifically for archives and archivists than there is for some of the other support services providers.

    At the same time, I suspect that some additional opportunities may emerge across these categories of support services providers. For example, discovery remains a significant challenge for historians, not least in their search for comprehensiveness. I believe there are additional ways for libraries and archives to work together (and in concert with scholars’ project-specific digitization efforts) to expose more materials more effectively and to integrate them into scholars’ research/discovery processes. Or, to take another example, historians clearly valued archivists’ expertise but had concerns about the contributions of subject librarians given their need for subfield expertise. I would be interested to explore the implications of this set of paired findings for how best to ensure that historians are systematically provided with the expertise they require. Thinking about each of these examples, there are ways to imagine approaches that would involve real and prohibitive costs, but in other cases there may be approaches that involve rethinking roles or even organization structure. As we conduct additional discipline-specific projects, especially in fields that rely on libraries and archives, I hope our findings will help support services providers think through these issues strategically.

    Thank you again for your engagement on this project for the field of history, and I hope to continue a conversation whether online or face to face.

  5. The employment patterns of project and entry level archivists cut against the deep subject knowledge that these scholars seek in a research archivist. Often, those who initially process the collection know it best, and they leave soon after the job is finished. The more seasoned archivists are often those who have the best connections, archival literacy, and research perspective but have accumulated tasks and roles that prevent a deep subject knowledge of their collections. The rise and acceptance of MPLP processing as a best practice has aided greatly to discovery, more is available at a cursory level, but does not prioritize deeper levels of description that can be utilized by reference archivivists that did not process the collections or write the descriptions themselves.

  6. Roger,

    Thank you for your response and of course it is completely appropriate that the report should be “scholar-centric” given your project’s goals. The fact that there’s nothing radically new in it for archives just means that we have a good understanding of our users, or at least this segment of our users. There has been talk, on this blog and elsewhere, about increasing the dialogue between the two professions. My impression is that there are many historians who know surprisingly little about archives, and so there is a great opportunity to share our perspective with those who are open to learning. This would also help us get better information from historians about how we can serve them more effectively. Without additional resources it is impossible for the archives to do “more” of anything, but it would be helpful to get input on how to prioritize that which we do. I suspect it might be difficult to reach a consensus among historians, but it would be interesting to see the results.

    I question the presumption that librarians can only be useful to historians if they have expertise in particular subfields. Librarians have expertise in finding information. If the historian can explain what s/he is looking for, the librarian shouldn’t need expertise in the subfield to find relevant information. From my reading of the report it wasn’t clear to me that some of the historians were giving their librarians a chance to assist them. Certainly some librarians are better than others, but I hope that most can competently assist all users in developing effective search strategies. I know that many librarians had concerns about the way their capabilities were represented in the report, so I expect that issue will be taken up on library-related blogs.

    As to how to make our resources more easily discoverable, I will leave the technical aspects of that to people like Trevor and Tim, who address it much better than I could ever do. As for as organizational cooperation goes, as I said, I know some people have hope that the Digital Public Library of America may serve as a kind of unified portal to digitized archival and manuscript collections. I suspect there must be an article out there that describes why we don’t already have a way to search across all finding aids (in the U.S.) but must instead rely on a variety of different portals (plus Google). I am not saying that just because it hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean it can work now, but that whatever factors have prevented it in the past may still very well be in effect and it would be a good idea to understand them. But this is not my “subfield” so I have to rely on others to help identify what resources might be available in inform that discussion.

    Again, thank you for a useful report and for giving our field another opportunity to engage with historians. Perhaps archivists and librarians can use it as a starting point to open a dialogue with historians at the local level about how we can work together more effectively.

    Best regards,


  7. Good to see this exchange. Nice response, Kate. Exciting times. Many growth opportunities for all the stakeholders, open minds and engagement best way to go! Touched on some issues already, may take up related ones elsewhere.

    Glad you posted this.

  8. One part of the complex discovery piece is ensuring that all archivists are aware of the need to make their finding aids discoverable by Google and other crawlers–duh. Our OCLC Research survey data from 2009 (figure on p. 43) revealed that only three-quarters of the research libraries surveyed did so at that time.

  9. Thanks for flagging up this report which I’m finding useful for my work with a university. Regarding models for discovery, you may wish to look at Archives Hub in the UK as a model It is a very well regarded project and interestingly it is funded by a universities joint funding stream.

  10. I think studies such as this one, if nothing else, remind archivists of the importance of continuing to improve delivery of these services to patrons. While I agree that the recommendations probably could have been predicted by archivists, the fact is that we are still figuring out how to create better finding aids and develop more robust digitization programs. It’s good for archivists to be included in any discussion about research practices especially since most of the work we do remains a mystery to the majority of people even within libraries where some of us work. Archivists tend to be very good at discussing what we do with other archivists but we still have some work to do in promoting our work and the great services we can offer to research community. However predictable the recommendations for archivists in this study I think we can agree that they are not wholly unimportant because we all know several institutions large and small struggling to provide these services.

  11. BJ,

    Yes, I completely agree. And some recommendations may be very useful for archives that still have policies that don’t support what historians want. For example, those that don’t allow cameras or scanners in the reading room, or those few holdouts who don’t want to put finding aids online. Or, as Jackie pointed out, those who still, inexplicably, don’t understand that Google needs to be able to crawl their descriptions (!).

    And yes, I think we owe the report’s creators our thanks for recognizing that archivists needed to be part of the conversation about the topic. As I said, I think this can be useful in generating discussions at the local level about what kind of services archives and libraries might want to improve if they want to better serve historians.


  12. Re: unified or centralized online discovery tools, I am continually surprised at how no professors seem to know about or use ArchiveGrid. When I do primary source research instruction for university students at all levels, I discuss ArchiveGrid and what it contains. I don’t think a single History or American Studies prof I’ve worked with knew about it before I introduced them to it. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s pretty good (and will anything ever be comprehensive?). It’s up to us to make it more comprehensive by contributing our finding aid data. It’s also going to be available for free now from OCLC, which is fantastic.

  13. FYI-another interesting post about the report from Sharon Leon, “Digital Methods for Mid-Career Avoiders?


    “The report characterizes history as a discipline in transition, and it is–both in human and institutional senses. Historians, graduate students, archivists, and librarians are each in their own way coping with the “problem of abundance” created by the digital turn. The recommendations are addressed to a range of stakeholders, but I find that the group that is most in need of a reorientation here are the academic historians themselves.”

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