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.
As we bring our series of blog posts following up on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative to a close, we thought it would be useful to summarise the interesting contributions that we’ve received. Looking back through them, we thought that they fell into three broad categories. First, there were several posts that addressed the issue of accessibility and building a sense of community among the student (and staff) body:
To these we can add the posts that were published last year as part of the original Pandemic Pedagogy initiative, which you can find by looking back through the blog.
We hope that you have found these posts to be useful in thinking about your own teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic.
Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this series of blog posts. We hope that you have found them useful. If you would like to contribute another short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in higher education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org), History UK’s Education Officer. We’d also love to hear your views on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative and on these blog posts via our Twitter account.
In our next post in our Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0 series, Emma Battell Lowman, of the University of Leicester, discusses the importance of building a relationship between staff that is reciprocally compassionate (inside and outside the classroom), especially during the pandemic.
I’m a big fan of Dr Theo Gilbert’s work on the importance of compassionate practice in Higher Education. Here, “compassion” isn’t an emotion, like empathy, it’s a “psycho-biologically mediated motivation/an intention to notice, not normalise, one’s own distress or disadvantaging, or that of others, and take action to reduce or prevent it.” Theo’s practices build connections in the classroom that reduce stress, improve achievement, and support wellbeing for staff and students. By fostering connection and mutual support, they help us to push back against the fear, uncertainty, and doubt saturating the individualised, marketized, neoliberal, UK university sector.
Some of our employers seem to be conveniently ignoring the fact that we are currently in national lockdown and almost a year into the devastations of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this isn’t normal, we’re not Ok, and neither are our students. And yet, we’re still here – professional and academic services staff – working however, whenever, and wherever we can to continue supporting our students and each other. We don’t need lunchtime wellbeing webinars, we need strategies that help us pool our efforts so we can get through this.
“Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, Responsibility” are “the 4 Rs” of Indigenous education and research identified more than 30 years ago by Cree educational expert Verna Kirkness. The work of critical Indigenous researchers and experts directly informs my pedagogy and politics, and the concept of reciprocity is particularly important here. Compassionate practice in the COVID classroom isn’t just about noticing distress or disadvantage impacting students, it’s also about making space for reciprocal care.
We want and need to support our students, and I see colleagues doing so in creative, kind, and expert ways. But we’re missing something crucial if we limit this to a one-way relationship of care. I admit to my students when I am not well, not just because I do sometimes need to adjust activities or availability, but also so that students who might be struggling see honest communication and self-reflection as acceptable and encouraged in our educational environments.
One day I was struggling because a friend was assaulted, and I had a full day of teaching. I let my students know, we checked in for a few minutes then went into our activities. Consequence? They stepped up in class, and several reached out via email to extend care to me and share their own stories. The reciprocal care helped create learning relationships in the class with high levels of trust despite the challenges of our first online semester. These gave rise to strong positive supportive interactions around skills and content, and a remarkably successful semester, in these difficult times.
If you would like to contribute a short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in Higher Education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (email@example.com), History UK’s Education Officer.