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.
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 ; 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 . 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 . 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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) are teaming up to explore how archivists and historians have adapted their research projects and ways of working as a result of closures and restrictions on access. We are currently inviting expressions of interest in contributing case studies and more general reflections:
Panel discussion and networking: Wednesday 21 April 2021, 2-4pm (online)
CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS
The circumstances of 2020-1 have exacerbated pre-existing challenges across our sectors, particularly in terms of access to archive and library materials. Yet it’s also shown us innovation, resilience, and the importance of mutual learning by archivists and historians alike.
History UK and The National Archives’ Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) are inviting reflections on the ways archivists and historians have adapted research projects and practices as a result of closures and social distancing. The aim is to explore how changes made for COVID-19 can and should be used to address longstanding issues of accessibility and equity, and to provide practical guidance for those needing to reframe or rethink their research. We want to hear about your personal experiences, as well as creative solutions and thoughts on how to make them sustainable.
We plan to compile a series of blog posts and videos of experiences to help us and our communities explore and build on what we have learned about a blended approach to research and collections access. These will be shared online in advance of a Research Resilience event, in which we will come together to discuss, network, and learn from each other.
We are inviting expressions of interest in writing a short blog post or video on your experiences of having to rethink research and/or access to collections. This may include, but is not limited to:
approaches to reframing research projects, whether as a result of COVID-19, or because of caring responsibilities, disability, or structural barriers
practical and sustainable ways of making archive and/or library materials more accessible
ideas for breaking down barriers between researchers and archivists
No need to be an expert, just able to capture your experience and try to join us at the event itself for questions and discussion.
Send a brief (c.100 words) overview of the experience you’d like to share to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5pm on Friday 29 January. If this deadline is too soon, let us know – we can be flexible.
Please note that we may have to review the timing of the event if pandemic measures seem likely to compromise attendance levels or our ability to run it effectively.
History UK and The National Archives have teamed up to co-host a Twitter chat that asks how historians and archivists can work together in a COVID landscape. We invite members of the History and Archives communities to join the discussion.
You will find more details of the conversation and the questions we’ll be asking in the poster attached here.
We will be releasing the questions on Thursday 9th July at 2pm so if you have something to say or something you’d like to find out, why not join us. We’re hoping this will be a great opportunity to talk to academic colleagues about the challenges and how we can work together to survive and thrive!