Historians’ use of archives

I have recently read an interesting article by Wendy Duff, Barbara Craig and Joan Cherry in Archivaria (58), published by the Canadian Society of Archivists in 2004 (sorry, I have a tendency to get to some articles a bit late!). It looked at historians’ use of archives (using 173 responses to a questionnaire). Whilst the study was carried out in a Canadian context, many of the observations and conclusions have wider resonance. Here I just draw out some of the points made in the study that are relevant in some way to the Archives Hub.

Historians were chosen for this survey because ‘their work has an impact far beyond their own academic communities, saturating text books used in public education and influencing new generations of undergraduate and graduate students’. I think this point is worth making more often because sometimes the academic users of archives are not recognised as a substantial group, but if we measure that level of use in terms of their overall influence, their impact would be seen as far greater. A study in 2003 (Helen R. Tibbo, American Archivist 66, no.1) surveyed 700 historians and found that 43% used the Internet to locate material. The survey suggests that historians may be characterised as users who consult a number of archival repositories rather than maybe just visiting one or two. The study also suggested that ‘university archives play a vital role in historical research’ and went on to say:

‘Perhaps what university archives lose in breadth [compared to government and local archives] they make up in availability, or their collections may be particularly valuable to the study of social history’.

One of the points that caught my attention was the observation that ‘historians tend to depend upon an informal network for finding material for their research.’ This network may include archivists as well as colleagues, but certainly if it is the case that this observation carries over to the UK (which I believe it does) then it does highlight one of the difficulties of making academics and historians aware of the resources that are available to them, such as the Archives Hub.

One of the questions asked about barriers to archival research. This threw up the lack of a finding aid as the second largest barrier (47%), the lack of detail of a finding aid (31%) and problems with finding aids being out of date (19%). In terms of formats, 92% liked the original format the most, so no surprises there, and only 2% liked digital reproductions the most. Indeed, there is a continuing tendency to print out documents for use. However, the conclusion to the study certainly emphasises that historians would benefit from not only having speedy access to good, detailed finding aids from their computers, which appears to be pretty much the main priority of the respondents, but also having links to digitised historical documents. It does point out that the historian’s preference for completeness ‘suggests that the digitization of selections of materials might meet some of their needs, but only if such selections are provided with explicit descriptions of what has been selected and why.’

This sort of study, examining use and user needs, raises the question in my mind of whether we should give people what they say they want or what we think they want…or maybe even what we think they will start to want at some point. Let’s face it, how many of us would have actually asked for many of the features that we now get from sites like Amazon? We may not have explicitly wanted them, but once they are there many of us certainly do use them and find them valuable. So maybe its a careful balance of understanding and anticipation when it comes to meeting the needs of the user.