Exploring British Design: Research Paths II

We recently ran a second workshop as part of our Exploring British Design project. The workshops aim  to understand more about  approaches to research, and researchers’ understanding and use of archives.

The second workshop was run largely on the same basis as the first workshop, using the same exercises.

Looking at what our researchers said and documented about their research paths over the two workshops, some points came out quite strongly:

  • Google is by far the most common starting point but its shortcomings are clear and issue of trust come up frequently.
  • There is often a strong visual emphasis to research, including searching for images and the use of Pinterest; there seems to be a split between those who gravitate towards a more text-based approach and those who think visually (many of our participants were graphic designers though!).
  • It is common to utilise the references listed in Wikipedia articles.
  • The library as a source is seen as part of a diverse landscape – it is one place to go to, albeit an important one. It is not the first port of call for the majority.
  • Aggregators are not specifically referred to very often. But they may be seen as a place to go if other searches don’t yield useful results.
  • Talking to people is very important, be it lecturers, experts, colleagues or friends
  • Online research is more immediate, and usually takes less effort, but there are issues of trust and it may not yield specific enough results, or uncover the more obscure sources.
  • There is a tendency to start from the general and work towards the more specific. With the research paths of most of the researchers, the library/archive was somewhere in the middle of this process.
  • Personal habits and past experience play a very large part, but there is a real interest in finding new routes through research, so habit is not a sticking point, but simply the dominant influence unless it is challenged.

For the second workshop, the first exercise asked participants to document their likely research paths around a topic.

flip chart showing research paths for a topic
Research paths of two researchers for the topic of Simpsons of Piccadilly


We had four pairs of researchers looking at different topics, and we left them to discuss their research paths for about 45 minutes. The discussions following the exercise picked up on a number of areas:

Online vs Offline

We kicked off by asking the researchers about online versus ‘offline’ research paths. One participant commented that she saw online as a route through to traditional research – maybe to locate a library or archive – ‘online is telling me where to look’ but in itself it is too general and not specific enough; whereas the person she was paired with tended to do more research online. He saw online as giving the benefit of immediacy – at any time of day or night he could access content. The issue of trust came up in the discussion around this issue, and one participant summed up nicely: “If you do online research there is less effort but there is less trust; if you research offline there is more effort but there is more trust.”

Following on from the discussion about how people go about using online services, there was a comment that things found online are often the more obvious, the more used and cited resources. Visiting a library or archive may give more opportunity to uncover little known sources that help with original research. This seemed to be endorsed by most participants, one commenting that Pinterest tends to reflect what is trendy and popular. However, there was also a view that something like Pinterest can lead researchers to new sources, as they are benefiting from the efforts, and sometimes the quite obsessive enthusiasms, of a wide range of people.

There was agreement that online research can lead to ‘information dumping’, where you build up a formidable collection of resources, but are unlikely to get round to sorting them all out and using them.

Library Resources

The issue of effort came up later in the discussion when referring to a particular university library (probably typical of many university libraries), and the amount of effort involved in using its databases. There was a comment about how you need to ‘work yourself up to an afternoon in the library’ and there seemed to be a general agreement that the ‘search across all resources’ often produced quite meaningless results. When compared to Google, the issue seems to be that relevance ranking is not effective, so the top results often don’t match your requirements. There was also some discussion around the way that library resource discovery services often involve too many steps, and there is effort in understanding how the catalogue works. One participant, whose research centres on the Web and the online user experience, felt that printed sources were of little use to him, as they were out of date very quickly.

Curating your sources

One researcher talked about using Pinterest to organise findings visually. This was followed up by another researcher talking about how with online research you can organise and collect things yourself. It facilitates ‘curating’ your own collection of resources. It can also be easier to remember resources if they are visual. Comparing Pinterest to the Library – with the former you click to add the image to your board; with the Library you pay a visit, you find the book, you take it to the scanner, you pay to take a scan…although it is increasingly possible to take pictures of books using your own device. But the general feeling was that the Web was far quicker and more immediate.

Attitudes towards research

One participant felt that there might be a split between those more like him who see research as ‘a means to an end’ and those who enjoy the process itself. So maybe some are looking for the shortest route to the end goal, and others see research as more exploratory activity and expect it to take time and effort. This may partly be a result of the nature and scope of the research. Short time scales preclude in-depth research.

Talking about serendipitous approaches, someone commented that browsing the library shelves can be constructive, as you can find books around your subject that you weren’t aware existed. This is replicated to some extent in something like Amazon, which suggests books you might be interested in. There was also some feeling that exploring too many avenues can take the researcher off topic and take up a great deal of time.

Trust and Citation

The issue of trust is important.  A first-hand experience, whether of a place you are researching, or using physical archive sources, is the most trustworthy, because you are seeing with your own eyes, experiencing first hand or looking at primary sources first hand; a library provides the next level of trust, as a book is an interpretation, and you may feel it requires corroboration; the online world is the least trustworthy. You will have the least trust if you are looking at a website where you don’t know about who or what is behind it. There was agreement that trust can come through crowd sourced information, but also some discussion around how to cite this (for example, using the Harvard system to reference web pages and crowd sourced resources). This led on to a short discussion around the credibility of what is cited within research. Maybe attitudes to Wikipedia are slowly changing, but at present there is generally still a feeling that a researcher cannot cite it as a source. There are traditions within disciplines around how to cite and what are the ‘right’ things to cite.

[Further posts on Exploring British Design will follow, with reflections on our workshops and updates on the project generally]







Exploring British Design: Research Paths


As part of our Exploring British Design project we are organising workshops for researchers, aiming to understand more about their approaches to research, and their understanding and use of archives. Our intention is to create an interface that reflects user requirements and, potentially, explores ideas that we gather from our workshops.

Of course, we can only hope to engage with a very small selection of researchers in this way, but our first workshop at Brighton Design Archive showed us just how valuable this kind of face-to-face communication can be.

We gathered together a small group of 7 postgraduate design students. We divided them into 4 groups of 2 researchers and a lone researcher, and we asked them to undertake 2 exercises. This post is about the first exercise and follow up discussion.  For this exercise, we presented each group with an event, person or building:

The Festival of Britain, 1951
Black Eyes and Lemonade Exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1951
Natasha Kroll (1912-2004)
Simposons of Piccadilly, London

We gave each group a large piece of paper, and simply asked them to discuss and chart their research paths around the subject they had been given. Each group was joined by a facilitator, who was not there to lead in any way, but just to clarify where necessary, listen to the students and make notes.

Case Study

Researchers charting their research paths for the Festival of Britain
Researchers charting their research paths for the Festival of Britain

I worked with two design students, Richard and Caroline, both postgraduate students researching aspects of design at The University of Brighton. They were looking at the subject of the Festival of Britain (FoB). It fascinated me that even when they were talking about how to represent their research paths, one instinctively went to list their methods, the other to draw theirs, in a more graphic kind of mind map. It was an immediate indication of how people think differently. They ended up using the listing method (see left).


diagram showing stages of research
Potential research paths for the Festival of Britain

The above represents the research paths of Richard and Caroline. It became clear early on that they would take somewhat different paths, although they went on to agree about many of the principles of research. Caroline immediately said that she would go to the University library first of all and then probably the central library in Brighton. It is her habit to start with the library, mainly because she likes to think locally before casting the net wider, she prefers the physicality of the resources to the virtual environment of the Web. She likes the opportunity to browse, and to consider the critical theory that is written around the subject as a starting point. Caroline prefers to go to a library or archive and take pictures of resources, so that she can then work through them at her leisure.  She talked about the importance of being able to take pictures, in order to be able to study sources at her leisure, and how high charges for the use of digital cameras can inhibit research.

Richard started with an online search. He thought about the sort of websites that he would gravitate towards – sites that were directly about the topic, such as an exhibition website. He referred to Wikipedia early on, but saw it as a potential starting place to find links to useful websites, through the external links that it includes, rather than using the content of Wikipedia articles.

Richard took a very visual approach. He focused in on the FoB logo (we used this as a representation of the Festival) and thought about researching that. He also talked about whether the FoB might have been an exhibition that showcased design, and liked the idea of an object-based approach, researching things such as furniture or domestic objects that might have been part of the exhibition. It was clear that his approach was based upon his own interests and background as a film maker. He focused on what interested and excited him; the more visual aspects including the concrete things that could be seen, rather than thinking in a text-based way.

Caroline had previous experience of working in an archive, and her approach reflected this, as well as a more text-based way of thinking. She talked about a preference for being in control of her research, so using familiar routes was preferable. She would email the Design Archives at Brighton, but that was not top of the list because it was more of an unknown quantity than the library that she was used to. Maybe because she has worked in an archive, she referred to using film archives for her research;  whereas Richard, although a film maker, did not think of this so readily. Past experience was clearly important here.

Both researchers saw the library as a place for serendipitous research. They agreed that this browsing approach was more effective in a library than online. They were clearly attracted to the idea of searching the library shelves, and discovering sources that they had not known about. I asked why they felt that this was more effective than an online exploration of resources. It seemed to be partly to do with the dependency of the physical environment and also because they felt that the choice of search term online has a substantial effect on what is, and isn’t, found.

Both researchers were also very focused on issues of trust; both very much of opinion that they would assess their sources in terms of provenance and authorship.

In addition, they liked the idea of being able to search by user-generated tags and to have the ability to add tags to content.

General Discussion

In the general discussion some of the point made in the case study were reinforced. In summary:

Participants found the exercise easy to do. It was not hard to think about how they would research the topics they were given. They found it interesting to reflect on their research paths and to share this with others.

For one other participant the library was the first port of call, but the majority started online.

Some took a more historical approach, others a much more narrative and story-based approach.  There were different emphases, which seemed to be borne out of personality, experiences and preferences. For example, some thought more about the ordering of the evidence, others thought more about what was visually stimulating.
It was therefore clear that different researchers took different approaches based on what they were drawn to, which usually reflected their interests and strengths.

There was a strong feeling about trust being vital when assessing sources. Knowing the provenance of an article or piece of writing was essential.

The participants agreed that putting time and effort into gathering evidence is part of the enjoyment of research. One mentioned the idea that ‘a bit of pain’ makes the end result all the more rewarding!  They were taken aback at the idea that that discovery services feel pressured to constantly simplify in order to ensure that we meet researchers’ needs. They understood that research is a skill and a process that takes time and effort (although, of course, this may not be how the majority of undergraduates or more inexperienced researchers feel).  Certainly they agreed that information must not be withheld, it must be accessible. We (service providers) need to provide signposts, to allow researchers to take their own paths. There was discussion about ‘sleuthing’ as part of the research process, and trying unorthodox routes, as chance discoveries may be made. But there was consensus that researchers do not need or wish to be nannnied!

All researchers did use Google at some point….usually using it to start their search. Funnily enough, some participants had quite long discussions about what they would do, before they realised they would actually have gone to Google first of all. It is so common now, that most people don’t think about it. It seemed to operate very much as a as a starting point, from where the researchers would go to sites, assess their worth and ensure that the information was trustworthy.

[There will be follow up posts to this, providing more information about our researcher workshops, summarising the second activity, which was more focused on archive sources, and continuing to document our Exploring British Design project.]



Facing the Music: are researchers and information professionals dancing to different tunes?

Still of presentation at ELAG 2013
What are the chief weapons we need to use to improve the user experience?

At ELAG 2013 I gave a presentation with a colleague from The University of Amsterdam, Lukas Koster. We wanted to do something entertaining, but with a worthwhile message that we both feel strongly about. We believe that more needs to be done to integrate resources and provide them to researchers in a way that suits end-user needs. We gave a presentation where we urged our colleagues to ‘mind the gap’ between the perspective of the information professional – their jargon and their complicated systems, which often fail to link resources adequately – and the researcher, who wants an integrated approach, language that is not a barrier to use and expects the power of the Web to be used within a library context, just as they might when looking for music online.

Still of a presentation where a librarian is explaining the library system to a researcher
A researcher tries to make sense of the library systems

Our presentation included two sketches: one in a music shop, where a punter (the ‘seeker’) expects the shop owner (the ‘pusher’) to know who else bought this music and what they thought of if; and one in a library, where the seeker wants an overview of everything available, and they want to look at research data and other resources without struggling with different catalogue systems and terminology.

In our presentation we referred to the ‘seeker’ wanting a discipline-focussed approach (not format based), and access regardless of location. I highlighted one of the problems with searching by showing examples of search terms used on the Archives Hub where the researchers were confused by the results. The terms researchers use don’t always fit into our approach, using controlled vocabularies.  We talked about the importance of connections between information. Our profession is making headway here, but there is a long way to go before researchers can really pull things together across different systems.

I spoke about the danger of making assumptions about our users and showed some examples of the Archives Hub survey results. Researchers don’t always come to our websites knowing what they are or what they want; they don’t necessarily have the same understanding of ‘archives’ as we do. Lukas expanded more on our musical theme. We can learn from some of the initiatives in this area – such as the ability people have to explore the musical world in so many different ways though things like MusicBrainz. Lukas also showed examples of researcher interfaces, looking to pull things together for the end user. Isn’t the idea of giving the researcher the ability to manage all of their research in this way  something libraries should be spearheading?

Image of a woman at a desk surrounded by books
A librarian contemplates the end of the index card…

We concluded that the vision of integrated, interconnected data is not easy. As information professionals we may have to move out of our comfort zones. But we don’t have any choice unless we want to be sidelined. This means that we need to change our mindsets (we talked about a ‘librarian lobe’!) and we need to actually think about whether it is us that needs to learn information literacy because we need to learn to think more like the end user!

Still of a scence in which the librarian cuts up a book for the researcher
The librarian has a frustrating time with a researcher who only wants one chapter!

See the slides on Slideshare.

The presentation is on You Tube, but be warned there are scenes of book cutting that may be upsetting to some!


ICT and the Student Experience

A HEFCE study from 2010 states that “96% of students use the internet as a source of information” (1). This makes me wonder about the 4% that don’t; it’s not an insignificant number. The same study found that “69% of students use the internet daily as part of their studies”, so 31% don’t use it on a daily basis (which I take to mean ‘very frequently’).

There have been many reports on the subject of technology and its impact on learning, teaching and education. This HEFCE/NUS study is useful because it concentrates on surveying students rather than teachers or information professionals. One of the key findings is that it is important to think about the “effective use of technology” and “not just technology for technology’s sake”. Many students still find conventional methods of teaching superior (a finding that has come up in other studies), and students prefer a choice in how they learn. However, the potential for use of ICT is clear, and the need to engage with it is clear, so it is worrying that students believe that a significant number of staff “lack even the most rudimentary IT skills”. It is hardy surprising that the experiences of students vary considerably when they are partly dependent upon the skills and understanding of their teachers, and whether teachers use technology appropriately and effectively.

At the recent ELAG conference I gave a joint presentation with Lukas Koster, a colleague from the University of Amsterdam, in which we talked about (and acted out via two short sketches) the gap between researchers’ needs and what information professionals provide. Thinking simply about something as seemingly obvious as the understanding and use of

Examples of interface terminology from archives sites
Random selection of interface terminology from archives sites.

the term ‘archives’ is a good case in point. Should we ensure that students understand the different definitions of archives? The distinction between archives that are collections with a common provenance and archives that are artificial collections? The different characters of archives that are datasets, generally used by social scientists? The “abuse” of the term archives for pretty much anything that is stored in any kind of longer-term way? Should users understand archival arrangement and how to drill down into collections? Should they understand ‘fonds’, ‘manuscripts’, ‘levels’, ‘parent collection’? Or is it that we should think more about how to translate these things into everyday language and simple design, and how to work things like archival hierarchy into easy-to-use interfaces?  I think we should take the opportunities that technology provides to find ways to present information in such a way that we facilitate the user experience. But if students are reporting a lack of basic ICT skills amongst teachers, you have to wonder whether this is a problem within the archive and library sector as well. Do information professionals have appropriate ICT skills fit for ensuring that we can tailor our services to meet the needs of the technically savvy user?

Should we be teaching information literacy to students? One of the problems with this idea is that they tend to think they are already pretty literate in terms of use of the internet. In the HEFCE report, a survey of 213 FE students found that 88% felt they were effective online researchers and the majority said they were self-taught. They would not be likely to attend training on how to use the internet. And there is a question over whether they need to be taught how to use it in the ‘right’ way, or whether information professionals should, in fact, work with the reality of how it is being used (even if it is deemed to be ‘wrong’ in some way).  Students are clear that they do want training “around how to effectively research and reference reliable online resources”, and maybe this is what we should be concentrating on (although it might be worth considering what ‘effective use of the internet’ and ‘effective research using the internet’ actually mean). Maybe this distinction highlights the problem with how to measure effective use of the internet, and how to define online or discovery skills.

A British Library survey from 2010 found that “only a small proportion [of students] …are using technology such as virtual-research environments, social bookmarking, data and text mining, wikis, blogs and RSS-feed alerts in their work.”  This is despite the fact that many respondents in the survey said they found such tools valuable. This study also showed that students turn to their peers or supervisors rather than library staff for help.

Part of the problem may be that the vast majority of users use the internet for leisure purposes as well as work or study, so the boundaries can become blurred, and they may feel that they are adept users without distinguishing between different types of use. They feel that they are ‘fine with the technology’, although I wonder if that could be because they spend hours playing World of Warcraft, or use Facebook or Twitter every day, or regularly download music and watch YouTube. Does that mean they will use technology in an effective way as part of their studies? The trouble is that if someone believes that they are adept at searching, they may not go that extra mile to reflect on what they are doing and how effective it really is. Do we need to adjust our ways of thinking to make our resources more user-friendly to people coming from this kind of ‘I know what I’m doing’ mindset, or do we have to disabuse them of this idea and re-train them (or exhort them to read help pages for example…which seems like a fruitless mission)? Certainly students have shown some concern over “surface learning” (skim reading, learning only the minimum, and not getting a broader understanding of issues), so there is some recognition of an issue here, and the tendency to take a superficial approach might be reinforced if we shy away from providing more sophisticated tools and interfaces.

The British Library report on the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future reinforces the idea that there is a gulf between students’ assumptions regarding their ICT skills versus the reality, which reveals a real lack of understanding. It also found a significant lack of training in discovery and use of tools for postgraduate students. Studies like this can help us think about how to design our websites, and provide tools and services to help researchers using archives. We have the challenges of how to make archives more accessible and easy to discover as well as thinking about how to help students use and interpret them effectively: “The college students of the open source, open content era will distinguish themselves from their peers and competitors, not by the information they know, but by how well they convert that knowledge to wisdom, slowly and deeply internalized.” (Sheila Stearns, “Literacy in the University of 2025: Still A Great Thing‟, from The Future of Higher Education , ed. by Gary Olson & John W Presley, (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2009) pp. 98-99).

What are the Solutions?

We should make user testing more integral to the development of our interfaces. It requires resource, but for the Archives Hub we found that even carrying out 10 one-hour interviews with students and academics helped us to understand where we were making assumptions and how we could make small modifications that would improve our site. And our annual online survey continues to provide really useful feedback which we use to adjust our interface design, navigation and terminology. We can understand more about our users, and sometimes our assumptions about them are challenged.

graph showing where people came from who visited the Hub
Archives Hub survey 2013: Why did you come to the Hub today?

User groups for commercial software providers can petition to ensure that out-of-the-box solutions also meet users’ needs and take account of the latest research and understanding of users’ experiences, expectations and preferences in terms of what we provide for them. This may be a harder call, because vendors are not necessarily flexible and agile; they may not be willing to make radical changes unless they see a strong business case (i.e. income may be the strongest factor).

We can build a picture of our users via our statistics. We can look at how users came into the site, the landing pages, where they went from there, which pages are most/least popular, how long they spent on individual pages, etc. This can offer real insights into user behaviour. I think a few training sessions on using Google Analytics on archive sites could come in handy!

We can carry out testing to find out how well sites rank on search engines, and assess the sort of experience users get when they come into a specialist site from a general search engine. What is the text a Google search shows when it finds one of your collections? What do people get to when they click on that link? Is it clear where they are and what they can do when they get to your site?

 * * *

This is the only generation where the teachers and information professionals have grown up in a pre-digital world, and the students (unless they are mature students) are digital natives. Of course, we can’t just sit back and wait a generation for the teachers and information professionals to become more digitally minded! But it is interesting to wonder whether in 25 years time there will be much more consensus in approaches to and uses of ICT, or whether the same issues will be around.

Nigel Shadbolt has described the Web as “one of the most disruptive innovations we have ever witnessed” and at present we really seem to be struggling to find out how best to use it (and not use it), how and when to train people to use it and how and when to integrate it into teaching, learning and research in an effective way.

It seems to me that there are so many narratives and assessments at present – studies and reports that seem to run the gamut of positive to negative. Is technology isolating or socialising? Are social networks making learning more superficial or enabling richer discussion and analysis? Is open access democratising or income-reducing? Is the high cost of technology encouraging elitism in education? Does the fact that information is so easily accessible mean that researchers are less bothered about working to find new sources of information?  With all these types of debates there is probably no clear answer, but let us hope we are moving forward in understanding and in our appreciation of what the Web can do to both enhance and transform learning, teaching and research.

An evaluation of the use of archives and the Archives Hub

This blog is based upon a report written by colleagues at Mimas* presenting the results of the evaluation of our innovative Linked Data interface, ‘Linking Lives‘. The evaluation consisted of a survey and a focus group, with 10 participants including PhD students and MA students studying history, politics and social sciences. We asked participants a number of questions about the Archives Hub service, in order to provide context for their thoughts on the Linking Lives interface.

This blog post concentrates on their responses relating to the use of archives, methods of searching and interpretation of results. You can read more about their responses to the Linking Lives interface on our Linking Lives blog.

Use of Archives and Primary Source Materials

We felt that it was important to establish how important archives are to the participants in our survey and focus group. We found that “without exception, all of the respondents expressed a need for primary resources” (Evaluation report). One respondent said:

“I would not consider myself to be doing proper history if I wasn’t either reinterpreting primary sources others had written about, or looking at primary sources nobody has written about. It is generally expected for history to be based on primary sources, I think.” (Survey response)

One of the most important factors to the respondents was originality in research. Other responses included acknowledgement of how archives give structure to research, bringing out different angles and perspectives and also highlighting areas that have been neglected. Archives give substance to research and they enable researchers to distinguish their own work:

“Primary sources are very valuable for my research because they allow me to put together my own interpretation, rather than relying on published findings elsewhere.” (Survey response)

Understanding of Archives

It is often the case that people have different perceptions of what archives are, and with the Linking Lives evaluation work this was confirmed. Commonly there is a difference between social scientists and historians; the former concentrating on datasets (e.g. data from the Office of National Statistics) and the latter on materials created during a person’s life or the activities of an organisation and deemed worthy of permanently preserving. The evaluation report states:

“The participants that had a similar understanding of what an archive was to the Archive Hub’s definition had a more positive experience than those who didn’t share that definition.”

This is a valuable observation for the work of the Hub in a general sense, as well as the Linking Lives interface, because it demonstrates how initial perceptions and expectations can influence attitudes towards the service. In addition, the evaluation work highlighted another common fallacy: that an archive is essentially a library. Some of the participants in the survey expected the Archives Hub to provide them with information about published sources, such as research papers.

These findings highlight one of the issues when trying to evaluate the likely value of an innovative service: researchers do not think in the same language or with the same perspectives as information professionals. I wonder if we have a tendency to present services and interfaces modelled from our own standpoint rather than from the standpoint of the researcher.

Search Techniques and Habits

“Searches were often not particularly expansive, and participants searched for specific details which were unique to their line of enquiry” (Evaluation report). Examples include titles of women’s magazines, personal names or places. If the search returned nothing, participants might then broaden it out.

Participants said they would repeatedly return to archives or websites they were familiar with, often linked to quite niche research topics. This highlights how a positive experience with a service when it is first used may have a powerful effect over the longer term.

The survey found that online research was a priority:

“Due to conflicting pressures on time and economic resources, online searching was prevalent amongst the sample. Often research starts online and the majority is done online. Visits to see archives in person, although still seen as necessary, are carefully evaluated.”  (Evaluation report)

The main resources participants used were Google and Google Scholar (the most ubiquitous search engines used) as well as The National Archives, Google Books and ESDS. Specialist archives were referred to relating to specific search areas (e.g. The People’s History Museum, the Wellcome Library, the Mass Observation Archive).

Thoughts and Comments About the Archives Hub

All participants found the Hub easy to navigate and most found locating resources intuitive. As part of the survey we asked the participants to find certain resources, and almost all of them provided the right answers with seemingly no difficulty.

“It is clear. The descent of folders and references at the top are good for referencing/orientating oneself. The descriptions are good – they obviously can’t contain everything that could be useful to everyone and still be a summary. It is similar to other archive searches so it is clear.” (Survey response, PhD history student)

The social scientists that took part in the evaluation were less positive about the Archives Hub than the historians. Clearly many social science students are looking for datasets, and these are generally not represented on the Hub. There was a feeling that contemporary sources are not well represented, and these are often more important to researchers in fields like politics and sociology. But overall comments were very positive:

“…if anyone ever asked about how to search archives online I’d definitely point them to the Archives Hub”.

“Useful. It will save me making specific searches at universities.”

Archives Hub Content

It was interesting to see the sorts of searches participants made. A search for ‘spatial ideas’ by one participant did not yield useful results. This would not surprise many archivists – collections are generally not catalogued to draw out such concepts (neither Unesco nor UKAT have a subject heading for this; LCSH has ‘spatial analysis’). However, there may well be collections that cover a subject like this, if the researcher is prepared to dig deep enough and think about different approaches to searching. Another participant commented that “you can’t just look for the big themes”. This is the type of search that might benefit from us drawing together archive collections around themes, but this is always a very flawed approach. This is one reason that we have Features, which showcase archives around subjects but do not try to provide a ‘comprehensive’ view onto a subject.

This kind of feedback from researchers helps us to think about how to more effectively present the Archives Hub. Expectations are such an important part of researchers’ experiences. It is not possible to completely mitigate against expectations that do not match reality, but we could, for example, have a page on ‘The Archives Hub for Social Scientists’ that would at least provide those who looked at it with a better sense of what the Hub may or may not provide for them (whether anyone would read it is another matter!).

This survey, along with previous surveys we have carried out, emphasises the importance of a comprehensive service and a clear scope (“it wasn’t clear to me what subjects or organisations are covered”). However, with the nature of archives, it is very difficult to give this kind of information with any accuracy, as the collections represented are diverse and sometimes unexpected. in the end you cannot entirely draw a clear line around the scope of the Archives Hub, just like you cannot draw a clear line around the subjects represented in any one archive. The Hub also changes continuously, with new descriptions added every week. Cataloguing is not a perfect art; it can draw out key people, places, subjects and events, but it cannot hope to reflect everything about a collection, and the knowledge a researcher brings with them may help to draw out information from a collection that was not explicitly provided in the description. If a researcher is prepared to spend a bit of time searching, there is always the chance that they may stumble across sources that are new to them and potentially important:

“…another student who was mainly focused on the use of the Kremlin Archives did point out that [the Archives Hub] brought up the Walls and Glasier papers, which were new to [them]”.

Even if you provide a list of subjects, what does that really mean? Archives will not cover a subject comprehensively; they were not written with that in mind; they were created for other purposes – that is their strength in many ways – it is what makes them a rich and exciting resource, but it does not make it easy to accurately describe them for researchers. Just one series of correspondence may refer to thousands of subjects, some in passing, some more substantially, but archivists generally don’t have time to go through an entire series and draw out every concept.

If the Archives Hub included a description for every archive held at an HE institution across the UK, or for every specialist repository, what would that signify? It would be comprehensive in one sense, but in a sense that may not mean much to researchers. It would be interesting to ask researchers what they see as ‘comprehensive resources’ as it is hard to see how these could really exist, particularly when talking about unpublished sources.

Relevance of Search Results

The difficulties some participants had with the relevance of results comes back to the problem of how to catalogue resources that often cover a myriad of subjects, maybe superficially, maybe in detail; maybe from a very biased perspective. If a researcher looks for ‘social housing manchester’ then the results they get will be accurate in a sense – the machine will do its job and find collections with these terms, and there will be weighting of different fields (eg. the title will be highly weighted), but they still may not get the results they expect, because collections may not explicitly be about social housing in Manchester. The researcher needs to do a bit more work to think about what might be in the collection and whether it might be relevant. However, cataloguers are at fault to some extent. We do get descriptions sent to the Hub where the subjects listed seem inadequate or they do not seem to reflect the scope and content that has been provided. Sometimes a subject is listed but there is no sense of why it is included in the rest of the description. Sometimes a person is included in the index terms but they are not described in the content. This does not help researchers to make sense of what they see.

I do think that there are lessons here for archivists, or those who catalogue archives. I don’t think that enough thought is gives to the needs of the researcher. The inconsistent use of subject terms, for example, and the need for a description of the archive to draw out key concepts a little more clearly. Some archivists don’t see the need to add index terms, and think in terms of technologies like Google being able to search by keyword, therefore that is enough. But it isn’t enough. Researchers need more than this. They need to know what the collection is substantially about, they need to search across other collections about similar subjects. Controlled vocabulary enables this kind of exploratory searching. There is a big difference between searching for ‘nuclear disarmament’ as a keyword, which means it might exist anywhere within the description, and searching for it as a subject – a significant topic within an archive.


*Linking Lives Evaluation: Final Report (October 2012) by Lisa Charnock, Frank Manista, Janine Rigby and Joy Palmer

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 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/reports/2012/researchers-of-tomorrow#exec_sum).

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: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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“.






The modern archivist: working with people and technology

I’ve recently read Kate Theimer’s very excellent post on Honest Tips for Wannabe Archivists Out There.

This is something that I’ve thought about quite a bit, as I work as the manager of an online service for Archives and I do training and teaching for archivists and archive students around creating online descriptions. I would like to direct this blog post to archive students or those considering becoming archivists. I think this applies equally to records managers, although sometimes they have a more defined role in terms of audience, so the perspective may be somewhat different.

It’s fine if you have ‘a love of history’, if you ‘feel a thrill when handling old documents’. That’s a good start. I’ve heard this kind of thing frequently as a motivation for becoming an archivist. But this is not enough. It is more important to have the desire to make those archives available to others; to provide a service for researchers. To become an archivist is to become a service provider, not an historian. It may not sound as romantic, but as far as I am concerned it is what we are, and we should be proud of the service we provide, which is extremely valuable to society. Understanding how researchers might use the archives is, of course, very important, so that you can help to support them in their work. Love of the materials, and love of the subject (especially in a specialist repository) should certainly help you with this core role. Indeed, you will build an understanding of your collections, and become more expert in them over time, which is one of the wonderful things about being an archivist.

Your core role is to make archives available to the community – for many of us, the community is potentially anyone, for some of us it may be more restricted in scope. So, you have an interest in the materials, you need to make them available. To do this you need to understand the vital importance of cataloguing. It is this that gives people a way in to the archives. Cataloguing is a real skill, not something to be dismissed as simply creating a list of what you have. It is something to really work on and think about. I have seen enough inconsistent catalogues over the last ten years to tell you that being rigorous, systematic and standards-based in cataloguing is incredibly important, and technology is our friend in this aim. Furthermore, the whole notion of ‘cataloguing’ is changing, a change led by the opportunities of the modern digital age and the perspectives and requirements of those who use technology in their every day life and work. We need to be aware of this, willing (even excited!) to embrace what this means for our profession and ready to adapt.

image of control roomThis brings me to the subject I am particularly interested in: the use of technology. Cataloguing *is* using technology, and dissemination *is* using technology. That is, it should be and it needs to be if you want to make an impact; if you want to effectively disseminate your descriptions and increase your audience. It is simply no good to see this profession as in any way apart from technology. I would say that technology is more central to being an archivist than to many professions, because we *deal in information*. It may be that you can find a position where you can keep technology at arm’s length, but these types of positions will become few and far between.  How can you be someone who works professionally with information, and not be prepared to embrace the information environment? The Web, email, social networks, databases: these are what we need to use to do our jobs. We generally have limited resources, and technology can both help us make the most of the resources we have and, conversely, we may need to make informed choices about the technology we use and what sort of impact it will have. Should you use Flickr to disseminate content? What are the pros and cons? Is ‘augmented reality’ a reality for us? Should you be looking at Linked Data? What is is and why might it be important? What about Big Data? It may sound like the latest buzz phrase but it’s big business, and can potentially save time and money. Is your system fit for purpose? Does it create effective online catalogues? How interoperable is it? How adaptable?

Before I give the impression that you need to become some sort of technical whizz-kid, I should make clear that I am not talking about being an out-and-out techie – a software developer or programmer. I am talking about an understanding of technology and how to use it effectively. I am also talking about the ability to talk to technical colleagues in order to achieve this. Furthermore, I am talking about a willingness to embrace what technology offers and not be scared to try things out. It’s not always easy. Technology is fast-moving and sometimes bewildering. But it has to be seen as our ally, as something that can help us to bring archives to the public and to promote a greater understanding of what we do. We use it to catalogue, and I have written previously about how our choice of system has a great impact on our catalogues, and how important it is to be aware of this.

Our role in using technology is really *all about people*. I often think of myself as the middleman, between the technology (the developers) and the audience. My role is to understand technology well enough to work with it, and work with experts, to harness it in order to constantly evolve and use it to best advantage, but also to constantly communicate with archivists and with researchers. To have an understanding of requirements and make sure that we are relevant to end-users. Its a role, therefore, that is about working with people. For most archivists, this role will be within a record office or repository, but either way, working with people is the other side of the coin to working with technology. They are both central to the world of archives.

If you wonder how you can possibly think about everything that technology has to offer: well, you can’t. But that’s why it is even more vital now than it has ever been to think of yourself as being in a collaborative profession. You need to take advantage of the experience and knowledge of colleagues, both within the archives profession and further afield. It’s no good sitting in a bubble at your repository. We need to talk to each other and benefit from sharing our understanding. We need to be outgoing. If you are an introvert, if you are a little shy and quiet, that’s not a problem; but you may have to make a little more effort to engage and to reach out and be an active part of your profession.

They say ‘never work with children and animals’ in show business because both are unpredictable; but in our profession we should be aware that working with people and technology is our bread and butter. Understanding how to catalogue archives to make them available online, to use social networks to communicate our messages, to think about systems that will best meet the needs of archives management, to assess new technologies and tools that may help us in our work. These are vital to the role of a modern professional archivist.

Training and the Archives Hub.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a training session for postgraduate students from the English department at the University of Salford. This had been organised with Ian Johnston, University Archivist at Salford, and Professor Sharon Ruston from ESPaCH. (School of English, Sociology, Politics & Contemporary History)

Training Room

Sharon kicked off the session by explaining what archives mean to her career and how she had actually made her name and written a book on the strength of some new evidence that she uncovered about Shelley and his desire to be a doctor: Shelley and Vitality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), which explored the medical and scientific contexts which inform Shelley’s concept of vitality in his major poetry.

She went on to detail some of her new research on Humphry Davy (examining poetry & science) and explained that although it can often be a lot of effort to look for archives, it can pay dividends if you put the time and energy into searching.

Ian then took the floor and showed the students some of the hidden gems from the University’s archives. He also brought some items with him – a letter from Edith Sitwell, papers from the Duke of Bridgewater archive etc. He also showed some photos of Salford University in the 1970s. We were all fairly amazed by the picture of the paternoster lift, which is a lift that doesn’t stop. Literally you have to jump on as it’s going past. Talk about students living dangerously!

Ian explained why Salford University contributed to the Hub: the benefits of profile in being part of a national cross-searching service leading to more researchers benefitting from the Salford University Archives Collections.

I then did a demonstration of some different websites where you can search for archives online and went on to show how the Archives Hub, Copac and Zetoc work and the different types of information that you can find in each.

Prior to the session, Ian and Sharon had asked the students for their research areas and I used these as my examples. I find if students cannot easily see how and why something is relevant to them, then they switch off. It’s important to tailor your examples to your audience, whatever level they are studying at.

We then got the students to have a go themselves as we walked around the room and gave more individual help. This worked really well as each student got at least 5 or 10 mins of one-to-one help on searching for their particular subject area.

We were all really pleased with how the session went. I could actually see the students sit up and take notice when Sharon was talking about making her name from finding new knowledge. It underlined how primary source material can lead to students incorporating unique perspectives to their research. I feel that this was key to the success of the session. The students were able to see how important archives had been to someone who they respected and knew was an expert in her field.

Ian showed them actual papers and letters from the archive and this allowed them to see concrete examples of what we were talking about, as opposed to thinking about archive materials in an abstract and ‘virtual’ way by just looking at online finding aids.

Sharon and Ian did a great job of explaining the benefits of using archives, I just told them how to find stuff… It was great to see how engaged the students were with what we were explaining to them. So much so I’ve been asked back for a repeat performance. (With the academics!)