Its a matter of research

I’ve just been reading an article by Elizabeth Shepherd in the December 2008 ARC magazine, asking whether research matters within archives and records management. The ‘anti-intellectualism’ that Terry Cook refers to is something that I can recognise, not least because I was that way inclined as a younger archivist. I remember wanting the MA course to give me the practical skills necessary to become an archivist, and wanting to get on with the real hands-on stuff of collecting, appraising, cataloguing and preserving, once I started work. It seemed to me at the time that this was what was important – ‘its all very well theorising, but you need to get on and do it’ kind of attitude. It took me quite a few years to realise that this was a misplaced notion. It seems obvious to me now that you need to ask yourself ‘why’ you are doing something as a fundamental part of the process.

To take EAD as an example, when I talk to students about using EAD, I think that what is most important is to impress upon them why they might use it – why it is of benefit, and, indeed, what its shortcomings might be. The ‘why’ needs to come before the ‘how’. It is so important to have a firm understanding, which helps to facilitate the proper evaluation and application of a standard. The idea of just going ahead and doing something because its always been done, or because most people are doing it, just seems anathema to me now.

I absolutely agree with Elizabeth that we have to think in terms of working on the mindset of the archivist or records manager. This is something I’ve written about in a chapter for a recent book, What Are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader. In terms of issues like data structure, format, cataloguing, and dissemination, archivists and records managers need to understand the benefits and the wider implications of the various options available. It seems hardly worth saying that archivists should think about sustainability and think long-term (although clearly this is not always easy). We need to be open to the possibilities of new technologies and see them as exciting opportunities – which is not to say that we should adopt them simply because they are new and novel – but sticking with old methods and ways of thinking in a fast changing world may leave us disengaged, and separated from our stakeholders and users.

Whilst the Archives Hub has a very practical raison d’etre, we do also involve ourselves in research, and this is essential when you are looking to harness new technologies for the benefit of effective cross-searching and dissemination of information. Whilst we are, I am sure, as guilty as many people, of introducing the odd feature without proper critical thought about why, about the wider implications, about things like sustainability and future planning, we generally do endeavour to operate on a sound theoretical basis.

I think that it would be worth services, like the Archives Hub, thinking about working more closely with researchers on topics like the evaluation of online services, the changing patterns of user behaviour, the benefits of a National Archives Network, the use of EAD…there are many options, but all of them would be of benefit in helping us to gain a greater sense of WHY.