Research Resilience reflection 1: Distributing the archive

This post by Alexandra Leigh (City University) is the first in a series of reflections linked to the Research Resilience event organised by History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP). You can find out more about the panel discussion and networking event here.

Picture the archive – what do you see? For me, a physical location often comes to mind when I think about the archive, whether somewhere I have visited, worked or studied. However, this is no longer the reality of a great deal of archival work.

Drawing showing a laptop, smartphone, camera, and The National Archives
How might we – as users – transmit and store the ‘distributed’ archive? © Author’s own

Archival research, in particular, is increasingly moving away from the physical location, forcing a reconsideration of what we consider to be the boundaries of the archive. Several user studies have suggested that many researchers now treat the archival research as a data gathering exercise, copying large amounts of archival material in order to work on them elsewhere [e.g. 2, 3]. Some have suggested this represents a new mode of ‘ex situ’ research [3]; and this is without considering researchers who may never even set foot in the archive.

As a PhD researcher based at The National Archives and City, University of London, my own research focuses on these changes to archival research and how to design digital systems to support new ways of interacting with the archive. From October to December 2019, I carried out a series of combined interviews and observations with 11 archival researchers at The National Archives. This study highlighted how key information activities that comprise research practice are being shaped by the researcher’s increasing need to work at a distance from the archive. Here, I present a brief overview of these findings and suggest ways in which the archive can support these changes to research.

The study identified three information activities – reading, collecting, organising – and how these have been shaped by the researcher’s desire to work with archival material elsewhere. When reading records, researchers mostly scanned records quickly, engaging in a lightweight form of interaction to identify material of relevance and collect it, usually through photography. Aware that they would be working with materials without reference to the archival context, most researchers sought to capture the broader context of the information they were interested in, and photographed the whole record wherever possible. Several researchers went further still, maintaining the association of records with file and series either through their notes or by organising materials into a similar filing structure on their personal devices.

Such findings could be taken as supportive of a new model of ‘ex situ’ archival research as identified by Trace and Karadkar [3]. However, rather than reflecting in situ and ex situ as two distinct approaches to research, the findings of this study emphasised the connection between the two and the continuities present in archival research across the notional boundary of the physical archive.

What I found striking about researchers’ activities in the archive was how they sought to preserve the potential to generate meaning from the archival context. Archivists will be well aware of how the meaning of the file can ultimately be more than sum of its parts [1]. This was reflected in the findings of this study, with comments such as, “a lot of times it’s easier to read things, how they’ve been categorised because they also tell you […] a larger story” (p.11) confirming the thought processes behind the researcher’s preservation of the archival arrangement and the significance of this to generating meaning. If researchers are seeking to preserve an archival meaning through their collecting activities, by retaining both provenance and original order, can it be argued that – conceptually – researchers haven’t left the archive at all?

Nonetheless, the researcher’s actions to remove information from the archive will always introduce some level of transformation. Though some elements of the archive are replicated and enacted through the researcher’s information activities, the decisions made as to what to take and what to leave behind also shape how they experience the archive through their assembled research materials. Researchers sought to preserve archival connections when reading, collecting, and organising materials to work on later. Yet they also worked selectively, taking only records of interest from the file. This selection disrupts the ‘archival’ meaning of the record and subtly reshapes the context to merge with the researcher’s own interests. Thus, the active decisions the researcher makes within the archive shape its recreation elsewhere, resulting in a unique and highly personalised enactment of the archive.

These findings invite reflection on the interaction between the archive and the researcher that shapes the meaning we make from records. While the shift away from the physical archive began long before the coronavirus pandemic, the upheaval of the last year has encouraged a reconsideration of many of the ways in which we work. As researchers increasingly work beyond the physical archive, we should reflect on the ways in which current systems or processes enable or constrain the researcher when drawing on the conceptual space of the archive. Further support should be inbuilt to afford interactions with the archive across multiple spaces, whether in the archive, home, office, or anywhere else the future archival researcher might wish to work.

To further these findings, a second study will take place later this year that will examine how working in different physical spaces affects the ways in which researchers engage with the archive. If you would be interested in learning more about this project and would like to be notified when recruitment for this next study begins, please contact me at


  1. Duff, W.M. and Johnson, C.A. (2002) ‘Accidentally found on purpose: Information-seeking behavior of historians in archives’, The Library Quarterly, 72(4), pp. 472-496.
  2. Rutner, J. and Schonfeld, R.C. (2012) Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians, New York: Ithaka S+R. Available at: (Accessed 08/01/21).
  3. Trace, C.B. and Karadkar, U.P. (2017) ‘Information management in the humanities: Scholarly processes, tools, and the construction of personal collections’, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 68(2), pp. 491-507.