Supporting Historians: responding to changing research practices

image of camera lensThis post picks out some highlights from a report from Ithaka S+R, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” by Roger C Schonfeld and Jennifer Rutner (December 2012). It concentrates on findings that are of particular relevance for archivists and for discovery. The report is recommended reading. It is a US study, but clearly there are strong similarities with other countries.

The report finds that underlying research methods are still broadly as they were but practices have changed considerably: “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.”

It goes on to summarise the improvements that archives might make to meet changing needs, none of which are unexpected: “For archives, we recommend ongoing improvements to access through improved finding aids, digitization, and discovery tool integration, as well as expanded opportunities for archivists to help historians interpret collections, to build connections among users, and to instruct PhD students in the use of archives.”

It is very encouraging to see the positive comments about researchers’ interactions with archivists: “Having a meeting with the archivist and librarian is really fantastic, because they help you understand what is in the archive, and what you might be able to use.” It is clear from the study that archivists have a vital role to play as key collaborators and colleagues of historians, and their value is clear: “Archivists are often able
 to hone and direct an inquiry, bringing to light items and collections that the researcher may have been unaware of.”

The study does highlight the changing nature of interactions with archival material, as a result of the use of digital cameras in particular, which enables the analytical work to take place elsewhere. It is generally felt to be a convenient and time-saving option, enabling long-term interaction with resources outside of the reading room. This development is actually described as “the single most significant shift in research practices among historians.” It raises questions about whether the role of the archivist changes when the analytical work is displaced from the archive, as archivists may have less opportunity for intellectual engagement with researchers.  The study does highlight a possible issue with digital copies, namely the separation of metadata from content, where the researcher has hundreds of images and needs to organise them constructively, and it also found that scholars are struggling to work with digitised non-textual content effectively.

The ability to find time for research trips was a primary challenge for many researchers. “Interviewees repeatedly emphasized that the amount of time they are able to spend in the archives shapes the nature of the interaction with the sources significantly.” Because most struggle to find time for research trips,  digitised sources are hugely beneficial.

The study found that digitised finding aids help researchers to “travel more strategically”. It suggests that high-quality finding aids may become more important as researchers move more towards photographic visits to archives, rather than serendipitous visits. This connection is something I have not thought about before, and I would be very interested to hear what archivists think about this idea.

Of major relevance for a service like the Archives Hub is the conclusion about finding aids:

“The use of online finding aids greatly facilitates, and sometimes displaces, these visits. If a “good” finding aid is readily available online, this might make a scouting visit unnecessary, depending on the importance of the archive to the research project. In some cases, researchers were able to rule out a visit to an archive based on the online finding aids, and re-purpose funds and effort to tracking down other sources for the project.”

This study is a clear endorsement for our belief (which, I should say, is also backed up by our own researcher surveys) that finding aids play a role not only in identifying and prioritising sources, but also in providing enough information in themselves to make a visit unnecessary. As well as this, they may have a kind of positive negative effect: the researcher knows that materials can be ruled out.  The study strongly emphasised the need for “searchable databases” and “centralized searching” and participants talked about the problem with locating each collection independently, especially across the diverse types of archive repository: “The process of identifying archives – in some cases small, local archives or international archives – can present an amazing challenge to researchers.” Clearly comprehensive cross-searching search tools are a huge boon to researchers.

In terms of discovery, Google is clearly a major tool and there was a feeling that it was the most comprehensive discovery tool, as well as being convenient and easy to use. It is often used at the start of a searching process.: “Generally, historians discover finding aids through Google searches and archive websites.” There is a clear demand for more descriptions online: “The general consensus among interviewees was that more online finding aids would greatly benefit their research, and that archives should continue to make efforts to make these accessible online. Continued and expanded efforts to develop finding aids more efficiently and to make them available digitally would seem to support the needs of historians for improved access.”

In terms of PhD students (and maybe others who are inexperienced researchers), the study found issues with the use of archives and other sources:

“Interviews with PhD candidates indicated that there is often little support for them in learning about new research methods or practices, either in their department or elsewhere at their institution, of which they are aware. While the subject matter treated by historians continues to diversify dramatically, new methodologies develop, and research practices change rapidly, it is clearly critically important that students have a grounding in the methods and practices of the field.” The Archives Hub has recently produced a brief Guide to Using Archives for the Inexperienced, and discussions on the archives email list showed just how much this is an important topic for archivists and how there was a general consensus that  PhD students need more training on research methodologies.

Summing up, the report makes six recommendations specifically for Archives:

1. More online finding aids
2. More digitisation
3. Discovery tools that promote cross-searching, crossing institutional boundaries and encompassing small and local record offices
4. Adequate resources for ensuring the expertise of the archivist continues to be available, enabling archivists to be active interpreters of the collections
5. Adapting to and facilitating the use of digital cameras and scanners in reading rooms
6. Training PhD students in the use of archives

There is a great deal more of interest and relevance in the report around searching, Google Scholar, the use of the academic library, organising and managing research, citation management and digital research methods. It is very well worth reading.


Archives and the Researchers of Tomorrow

“In 2009, the British Library and JISC commissioned the three-year Researchers of Tomorrow study, focusing on the information-seeking and research behaviour of doctoral students in ‘Generation Y’, born between 1982 and 1994 and not ‘digital natives’. Over 17,000 doctoral students from more than 70 higher education institutions participated in the three annual surveys, which were complemented by a longitudinal student cohort study.” (Taken from

This post picks up on some aspects of the study, particularly those that are  relevant to archives and archivists. I am assuming that archivists come into the category of libraries as being ‘library professionals’, at least to an extent, though our profession is not explicitly mentioned. I would recommend reading the report in full as it offers some useful insights into the research behaviour of an important group of researchers.

What is heartening about this study is that the findings confirm that generation Ydoctoral students are

Image from:

sophisticated information-seekers and users of complex information sources“.  The study does conclude that information seeking behaviour is becoming less reliant on the support of libraries and library staff, which may have implications for the role of libraries and archive professionals, but “library staff assistance with finding/retrieving difficult-to-access resources” was seen as one of the most valuable research support resources available to students, although it was a relatively small proportion of students that used this service. There was a preference for this kind of on-demand 1-2-1 support rather than formal training sessions. One of the students said ” the librarians are quite possibly the most enthusiastic and helpful people ever, and I certainly recommend finding a librarian who knows their stuff, because I have had tremendous amounts of help with my research so far, just simply by asking my librarian the right question.

The survey concentrated on the most recent information-seeking activity of students, and found that most were not seeking primary sources, but rather secondary sources (largely journal articles and books).

This apparent and striking dependence on published research resources implies that, as the basis for their own analytical and original research, relatively few doctoral students in social sciences and arts and humanities are using ‘primary’ materials such as newspapers, archival material and social data.

This finding was true across all subject disciplines and all ages. The study found that about 80% of arts and humanities students were looking for any bibliographic references on their topic or specific publications, while only 7% were looking for non-published archival material. It seems that this reliance on published information is formed early on in their research, as students lay the groundwork for their PhD. Most students said they used academic libraries more in their first year of study – whether visiting or using the online services, so maybe this is the time to engage with students and encourage them to use more diverse sources in the longer-term.

A point that piqued my interest was that the arts and humanities students visiting other collections in order to use archival sources would do so even if  “many of the resources they required had been digitised“, but this point was not explained further, which was frustrating. Is it because they are likely to use a mixture of digital and non-digital sources? Or maybe if they locate digital content it stimulates their interest to find out more about using primary sources?

Around 30% used Google or Google Scholar as their main information gathering tool,  although arts and humanities students sourced their information from a wider spread of online and offline sources, including library catalogues.

One thing that concerned me, and that I was not aware of, was the assertion that “current citation-based assessment and authenticity criteria in doctoral and academic research discourage the citing of non-published or original material“. I would be interested to know why this is the case, as surely it should be actively encouraged rather than discouraged? How does this fit with the need to demonstrate originality in research?

Students rely heavily on help from their supervisors early on in their research, and supervisors have a great influence on their information and resource use. I wonder if they actively encourage the use of primary sources as much as we would like?  I can’t help thinking that a supervisor enthusiastically extolling the importance and potential impact of using archives would be the best way to encourage use.

There continues to be a feeling amongst students, according to this study, that “using social media and online forums in research lacks legitimacy” and that these tools are more appropriate within a social context. The use of twitter, blogs and social bookmarking was low (2009 survey: 13% of arts and humanities students had used and valued Twitter) and use was more commonly passive than active. There was a feeling that new tools and applications would not transform the way that the students work, but should complement and enhance established research practices and behaviour. However, it should be noted that use of ‘Web 2.0’ tools increased over the 3 years of the study, so it may be that a similar study carried out in 5 years time would show significantly different behaviour.

Students want training in research geared towards their own subject area, preferably face-to-face. Online tutorials and packages were not well used. The implication is that training should be at a very local level and done in a fairly informal way. Generic research skills are less appealing. Research skills training days are valued, but if they are poor and badly taught, the student feels their time is wasted and may be put off trying again. Students were quite critical of the quality and utility of the training offered by their university mainly because (i) it was not pitched at the right level (ii) it was too generic or (iii) it was not available on demand. Library-led training sessions got a more positive response, but students were far less likely to take up training opportunities after the first year of their PhD.  Training in the use of primary sources was not specifically covered in the report, though it must be supposed this would be (should be!) included in library-led training.

The study indicated that students dislike reading (as opposed to scanning) on screen. This suggests that it is important to provide the right information online, information that is easy to scan through, but worth providing a PDF for printout, especially for detailed descriptions.

One quote stood out for me, as it seems to sum up the potential danger of modern ways of working in terms of approaches to more in-depth analysis:

“The problem with the internet is that it’s so easy to drift between websites and to absorb information in short easy bites that at times you forget to turn off the computer, rest your eyes from screen glare and do some proper in-depth reading. The fragments and thoughts on the internet are compelling (addictive, even), and incredibly useful for breadth, but browsing (as its name suggests) isn’t really so good for depth, and at this level depth is what’s required.” (Arts and humanities)

We do often hear about the internet, or computers, tending to reduce levels of concentration. I think that this point is subtly different though – it’s more about the type of concentration required for in-depth work, something that could be seen as essential for effective primary source research.


We probably all agree that we can always do more to to promote the importance of archives to all potential users, including doctoral students. Certainly, we need to make it easier for them to discovery sources through the usual routes that they use, so for one thing ensuring we have a profile via Google and Google Scholar. Too many archives still resist this requirement, as if it is somehow demeaning or too populist, or maybe because they are too caught up in developing their own websites rather than thinking about search engine optimisation, or maybe it is just because archivists are not sure how to achieve good search engine rankings?

Are we actively promoting a low-barrier, welcome and open approach? I recall many archive institutions that routinely state that their archives are ‘open to bone fide researchers only’. Language like that seems to me to be somewhat off putting. Who are the ‘non-bone fide’ researchers that need to be kept out? This sort of language does not seem conducive to the principle of making archives available to all.

The applications we develop need to be relatively easy to absorb into existing research work practices, which will only change slowly over time. We should not get too caught up in social networks and Web 2.0 as if these are ‘where it’s at’ for this generation of students. Maybe the approaches to research are generally more traditional than we think.

The report itself concludes that the lack of use of primary sources is worrying and requires further investigation:

There is a strong case for more in-depth research among doctoral students to determine whether the data signals a real shift away from doctoral research based on primary sources compared to, say, a decade ago. If this proves to be the case there may be significant implications for doctoral research quality related to what Park described as “widely articulated tensions between product (producing a thesis of adequate quality) and process (developing the researcher), and between timely completion and high quality research“.






Online Survey Results (2011)

We would like to share some of the results of our annual online survey, which we run each year, over a 3-4 week period. We aim for about 100 responses (though obviously more would be very welcome!), and for this survey we got 92 responses. We create a pop-up invitation to fill out the survey – something we do not like to do, but we do feel that it attracts more responses than a simple link.


We have a number of questions that are replicated in surveys run for Zetoc and Copac, two bibliographic JISC-funded Mimas services, and this provides a means to help us (and our funders) look at all three services together and compare patterns of use and types of user.

This year we added four questions specifically designed to help us with understanding users of the Hub and to help us plan our priorities.

We aim to keep the number of questions down to about 12 at the most, and ensure that the survey will take no longer than 10 minutes to complete. But we also want to provide the opportunity for people to spend longer and give more feedback if they wish, so we combine tick lists and radio boxes with free text comments boxes.

We take the opportunity to ask whether participants would be willing to provide more feedback for us, and if they are potentially willing, they provide their email address. This gives us the opportunity to ask them to provide more feedback, maybe by being part of a focus group.

Results of the Survey


  • The vast majority of respondents (80%) are based in the UK for their study and/or work.
  • Most respondents are in the higher education sector (60%). A substantial number are in the Government sector and also the heritage/museum sector.
  • 20% of those using the Hub are students – maybe less than we would hope, but a significant number.
  • 10% are academics – again, less than we would hope, but it may be that academics are less willing to fill in a survey.
  • 50% are archivists or other information professionals. This is a high number, but it is important to note that it includes use of the Hub on behalf of researchers, to answer their enquiries, so it could be said to represent indirect use by researchers.
  • The majority of respondents use the service once or twice a month, although usage patterns were spread over all options, from daily to less than once a month, and it is difficult to draw conclusions from this, as just one visit to the Hub website may prove invaluable for research.

graph showing value of the HubUse and Recommendation

  • A significant percentage – 26% – find the Hub ‘neither easy nor difficult’ to use, and 3% of the respondents found it difficult to use, indicating that we still need to work on improving usability (although note that a number of comments were positive about ease of use) .
  • 73% agree their work would take longer without the Hub, which is a very positive result and shows how important it is to be able to cross-search archives in this way.
  • A huge majority – 93% – would recommend the Hub to others, which is very important for us. We aim to achieve 90% positive in this response, as we believe that recommendations are a very important means for the Hub to become more widely known.

Subject Areas

We spent a significant amount of time creating a list of subjects that would give us a good indication of disciplines in which people might use the Hub. The results were:

    • History 47
    • Library & Archive Studies 33
    • English Literature 17
    • Creative & Performing Arts 16
    • Education & Research Methods 10
    • Predominantly Interdisciplinary 9
    • Geography & Environment 5
    • Political Studies & International Affairs 5
    • Modern Languages and Linguistics 4
    • Physical Sciences 4
    • Special Collections 4
    • Architecture & Planning 3
    • Biological & Natural Sciences 3
    • Communication & Media Studies 3
    • Medicine 3
    • Theology & Philosophy 3
    • Archaeology 2
    • Engineering 2
    • Psychology & Sociology 2
    • Agriculture 1
    • Law 1
    • Mathematics 1
    • Business & Management Studies 0
  • History is, not surprisingly, the most common discipline, but literature, the arts, education and also interdisciplinary work all feature highly.
  • There is a reasonable amount of use from the subjects that might be deemed to have less call for archives, showing that we should continue to promote the Hub in these areas and that archives are used in disciplines where they do not have a high profile. It would be very valuable to explore this further.

graph showing use of archival websites

  • The Hub is often used along with other archival websites, particularly The National Archives and individual record office websites, but a significant number do not use the websites listed, so we cannot assume prior knowledge of archives.
  • It would be interesting to know more about patterns of use. Do researchers try different websites, and in what order to they visit them? Do they have a sense of what the different sites offer?
  • There is still low use of the European aggregators, Europeana and APENet, although at present UK archives are not well represented on these services and arguably they do not have a high profile amongst researchers (the Hub is not yet represented on these aggregators).

Subsequent activities

  • It is interesting to note that 32% visit a record office as a result of using the Hub, but 68% do not. It would be useful to explore this further, to understand whether the use of the Hub is in itself enough for some researchers. We do know that for some people, the description holds valuable information in and of itself, but we don’t know whether the need to visit a record office, maybe some distance away, prevents use of the archives when they might be of value to the researcher.

What is of most value?

  • We asked about what is important to researchers, looking at key areas for us. The results show that comprehensive coverage still tops the polls, but detailed descriptions also continue to be very important to researchers, somewhat in opposition tograph showing what is most valuable to researchers the idea of the ‘quick and dirty’ approach. More sophisticated questioning might draw out how useful basic descriptions are compared with no description and what sort of level of detail is acceptable.
  • Links to digital content and information on related material are important, but not as important as adding more descriptions and providing a level of detail that enables researchers to effectively assess archives.
  • Searching across other cultural heritage resources at the same time is maybe surprisingly less of a priority than content and links. It is often assumed that researchers want as much diverse information as possible in a ‘one-stop shop’ approach, but maybe the issues with things like the usability of the search,  navigation, number of results and relevance ranking of results illustrate one of the main issues – creating a site that holds descriptions and links to very varied content and still ensuring it is very easily understandable and researchers know what they are getting.
  • The regional search was not a high priority but a significant medium priority, and it might be argued that not all researchers would be interested in this, but some would find it particularly useful, and many archivists would certainly find it helpful in their work
  • We provided a free text box for participants to say what they most valued. The ability to search across descriptions, which is the most basic value proposition of the Hub, came out top, and breadth of coverage was also popular, and could be said to be part of the same selling point.
  • It was interesting to see that some respondents cited the EAD Editor as the main strength for them, showing how important it is to provide ways for archivists to create descriptions (it may be thought that other means are at their disposal, but often this is not the case).
  • Six people referred to the importance of the Hub for providing an online presence, indicating that for some record offices, the Hub is still the only way that collections are surfaced on the Web.

What would most improve the Hub?

  • We had a diversity of responses to the question about what would most improve the Hub, maybe indicating that there are no very obvious weaknesses, which is a good thing. But this does make it difficult for us to take anything constructive from the answers, because we cannot tell whether there is a real need for a change to be made. However, there were a few answers that focused on the interface design, and some of these issues should be addressed by our new ‘utility bar’ which is a means to more clearly separate the description from the other functions that users can then perform, and should be implemented in the next six months.


The survey did not throw up anything unexpected, so it has not materially affected our plans for development of the Hub. But it is essentially an endorsement of what we are doing, which is very positive for us. It emphasised the importance of comprehensive coverage, which is something we are prioritising, and the value of detailed descriptions, which we facilitate through the EAD Editor and our training opportunities and online documentation. Please contact us if you would like to know more.