A question for researchers with experience in the pre-Internet era

I’d like to confirm what I think is a pretty logical assumption about the driver for changes in archival practice. To do this I would like the input of people who conducted research in archives before the glorious age of the Internet. (I am thinking primarily of people conducting scholarly or subject-oriented research rather than people interested in family history and genealogy.)

  • Do you think it’s accurate to say that before the widespread use of the Internet historians and other researchers did not have an expectation that descriptions of all an archives’ holdings would be accessible via the available research tools?
  • Was there an accepted expectation that discovering collections with relevant materials might involve several stages of discovery? If so, what were those stages? Looking in printed sources (like NUCMC), asking colleagues, following references in footnotes, contacting archivists?

As is probably clear from the questions, my hypothesis is that it is the easy and seemingly all-encompassing nature of information available on the web that has driven archivists to seek to provide online access to some level of information about all the holdings in their collections. My assumption is that prior to the Internet there was no assumption that such access would be possible, and that it was expected that there would be what we now call “hidden collections” which would have to be “discovered.”  (As opposed to today when archivists believe that our users expect that some level of intellectual access will be provided online for all materials, and that our users have an expectation that one easy search tool that reveals to them all the relevant materials across archives should be possible.)

Are my assumptions about research practices in the pre-Internet age accurate? Many thanks.

NOTE: There is a different question for archivists with experience in the pre-Internet era posed in the next post.

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6 thoughts on “A question for researchers with experience in the pre-Internet era”

  1. A fascinating question that I have been wondering about for some time not just in terms of what researchers expect from archivists but what it is possible for researchers to predictably search and find now, that was more difficult then.

    I did quite a bit of my scholarly research pre 1994 in archives with card catalogues, both in the UK and in South Africa. I think there is a more important distinction to make between computerised catalogues and card catalogues than between internet and pre-internet in terms of discoverability within archives. Some of the archives had computerised catalogues too and this was the big difference for me in terms of being able to find stuff independently. Once one has to go to an archive in person, the difference between online and computerised catalogues is negligible. The main issue then becomes how detailed the catalogue is.

    I used to frequently look in the Miscellaneous section of any catalogue for interesting finds (now I would just search), but usually one took a whole series of documents, say court records or whatever and just worked through them all. I got advice about where else to look from fellow researchers, who were usually better able to help me with specific queries from a research point of view than the archivists, and even more frequently I looked in their books / articles for footnote refs that could help me. Within a series, where the catalogue was detailed it is possible to cherry pick documents (in SA the digital catalogue NAAIRS was quite detailed, not just listing series names but headings of documents within series), but maybe what is changing now is that as newspaper series for example are fully digitized, it is possible to search at a lower level of detail.

    My experience was that only a few archivists have the time to really get to grips with the content of their collection unless it is a very small one, so most of their knowledge is at the level of the catalogue. Archivists were helpful when the card catalogue was badly organized, which is how I remember the SA National Library catalogue being, and there fortunately the archivists were pretty good. This does not matter with a computerised catalogue.

    I think where the internet comes into play, and specifically platforms for searching across archives, is in identifying documents (such as private papers, paintings, maps etc) that are not housed in predictable places or are otherwise generally unknown to the research community in your field. In pre-internet times, you had to find these by chance. For example in searching the computerised catalogue in Edinburgh in about 1994 I came across some fascinating private papers of the first Cape Chief Justice I did not specifically go there to see, but only because I was already there. Researchers I knew used to go to families and local museums to see their collections in case people they were researching had deposited papers.

    Mostly for researchers, then and now, effective discovery depends on knowing how documents are generated and who might be generating them to provide evidence for their research question. Even today of course not all archives have online catalogues, and searching in different languages than the catalogue could produce skewed results. It is still therefore important for researchers to consider how the documentation they are seeking was generated, and why, because this affects where they will look and how they will analyse it. So I would be sad if researchers today purely relied on searching on the internet to guide discovery.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Harriet. Just to make sure I’m clear, when you’re talking about computerized catalogs, were they accessible from both outside and inside the archives? In other words, was the difference between repositories with just hard copy card catalogss and those with computerized catalogs available from outside the building? And if so, how was access to those computerized catalogs being provided offsite (must have been via the Internet?)? I’m showing my ignorance of early systems, I know.

    And presumably in those computerized catalogs MARC records (or their equivalent) had been created at a collection level, with subject access points added?

  3. Hi Kate — Hidden collections were–and in many ways still are–the goldmine for historical research, stuff that offered new perspectives on a question or topic had and still has high value. But your question makes me think of Roy Rosenzweig’s essay on the shift of challenges for both preservers and researchers in the digital turn from scarcity of sources to abundance of sources. In fact the essay is called “Scarcity or Abundance” — it’s collected in his book, Clio Wired, and also, I believe, online somewhere. His point was that so much more is preservable in the digital age, but one might extend his theme to questions of metadata–so much more is “tag-able”; but there’s so much more labor needed to do the deep tagging! It’s a good example of how the digital makes for less efficiency, more work, it’s slower not faster, and it needs more funding–and how this is absolutely fine (at least in my book, er, website). — All best, Michael

  4. Hi Kate,

    Pre-internet I am talking about computerised catalogues that were not available outside the building in most cases. In the case of SA, it was unusual because all government archives and some others were catalogued in some detail and available only in the buildings (again) of the government archives until they were made available on the internet. This may also be true of other countries, I don’t know. My experience of these catalogues as a researcher was that they differed as to the level of information available, depending on the archive. NAAIRS in SA was quite detailed, also recording document-level headings for some series.

  5. I still rely quite heavily on traditional methods (footnotes, NUCMC, and a network of colleagues) to track down collections. More often than not, it seems, I have to track down which institution holds the collection, and then work through their online catalog to the finding aid I need. From there some finding aids can often be quite good–though in one case the online finding aid had no relation to the current organization of the collection, and seemed only intended to provide amusement to the archivists (“oh, you used that?!”). The Internet certainly speeds up the process (by searching footnotes in JSTOR, or e-mailing colleagues, and downloading the finding aids), but it has not fully displaced older methods as far as I can see.

  6. As a researcher who did research before the internet was pervasive and most certainly archives were not pervasive on it, I think your comment about how most researchers found sources is true. For someone like me who did a pretty wide-ranging project from the 1890s to the 1970s: a look a NUCMC printed catalogs, a look at the (NHPRC-sponsored) Directory to Archives and Manuscripts Repository, a read through the Guide to National Archives, following of footnotes, querying of archivists once I was actually in a place (for example a longtime following leads in the Library of Congress card catalog in the Manuscript division). Another source I stumbled across that was really useful was a microfiche compilation of finding aids from many repositories that also included a subject index. Don’t remember what it was called, but it was on the reference shelf at George Washingtion University’s Library. Did I spend my time thinking maybe everything I need is “hidden” somewhere? Probably not as much as I should have, but then I also found a lot of sources already through these means and I needed to finish the dissertation. I know my mother as a documentary editor sent hundreds of query letters to repositories which were likely to hold letters from the individuals whose papers she was editing.

    However, just because there was a lot of searching around, I found that once you were at a repository, archivists did not always prevent you from seeing things that had not been properly processed (the Swarthmore College Peace Collection comes to mind). I don’t think these archivists were thinking we haven’t described it, we’re not going to let people see it. Indeed, they did the opposite and made it available. I don’t know that the same would have happended everywhere, but . . . I hope most places were trying.

    When I worked on the book, the internet was alive and it was useful, though not completely. Access to the catalog at the Wisconsin Historical Society helped me plan for a more effective research trip (though I still ran out of time). Nothing prepared me for the records of the National Park Service that were still at Suitland and which a great records manager facilitated my access when everything seemed about to go wrong. Others would have to tell me if now I could look online for records schedule to know that such great records were there. And naturally some places just didn’t have the resources yet (or even now) to get descriptions online.

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