I have two more articles I want to review for this series on archives and history.  This week’s was written by Alex Poole and is entitled “Archival Divides and Foreign Countries?  Historians, Archivists, Information-Seeking, and Technology: Retrospect and Prospect.”  He is an assistant professor at Drexel University’s College of Computing and Informatics.  His article was published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the American Archivist.

Poole gave no credence to the idea that the relationship between archivists and historians has deteriorated.  He recounted 80 years of this relationship along with the methods that archivists have used to study historians.  He suggested three reasons why it’s important for archivists to study historians:

  1. historians’ work extends beyond their academic community
  2. historians are important users and advocates for archives as “‘researchers of last resort'”
  3. historians are an “identifiable and measurable user group” (376)

If you want a concise literature review of the entire history of the relationship between archivists and historians, read pages 377-80.  (Several of the articles he cited have also been reviewed here in prior weeks.  And Poole’s endnotes provide a very thorough listing of the relevant literature.)  Ultimately, he contended that a primary reason for the perception of a divide between archivists and historians has been a tendency to homogenize each group, while in fact he asserted that historians both understand and appreciate the work of archivists.  He also identified shared concerns of both groups:

“the nature of source materials, the phenomenon of social memory, and issues surrounding culture, power, and agency” (380)

Poole identified the 1970s as the first time that archivists conducted research on the information-seeking behavior of historians, largely necessitated by the rise of social history and cultural history. The overall result of these shifting priorities for historians was a desire for more and different sources to help shape the narrative of these new bottom-up histories.  Archivists have typically used four methods for surveying historians:

  • Bibliometrics.  These sorts of investigations encompass citation studies (which “count each bibliographic unit each time it appears in a footnote”) along with reference studies (which “count each bibliographic unit in the footnote only once”) (381-82).  Although bibliometrics produces a huge amount of data, it reveals nothing about how researchers acquire sources or what quality they assign to these sources.
  • Questionnaires.  If a questionnaire is well-designed, it can collect useful data from individual researchers, but it is limited by said individual’s memory.
  • Interviews.  While interviews can provide more in-depth feedback, they depend on the interviewee to analyze and report the evolution of perceptions and behaviors during the research process.  Including open-ended questions could address some of these concerns.
  • Combination.  Poole acknowledged that combining methodologies can produce better results but also creates more challenges for the researcher.

Each of these methodologies is summarized in tables compiling data from various studies.  Poole then evaluated the results of these studies regarding the locating of sources, using primary and nontextual materials, and general information-seeking strategies.

  • Historians still depend on footnote/citation chaining to find sources.  They also count on archivists to point them to relevant sources — especially in person but also through finding aids that lend a degree of familiarity to unfamiliar collections or repositories.  A fascinating finding indicated that “the most popular retrieval methods were not invariably the most effective” (389).  While the idea of having access to primary source materials online is attractive, historians remain concerned about the accuracy and completeness of digitized sources along with preferring room for context and peer-reviewed mediation.
  • Primary sources remain the cornerstone of historians’ research.  However, the various studies revealed some contradictions between what sorts of sources historians prefer vs. what sources they actually cite in their research, which raises an interesting question on the difference between use and usefulness.  Archivists also need to figure out how to preserve provenance and authenticity in the realm of digitization.  Research demonstrates that nontextual sources also need to be readily accessible to historians.
  • While seeking information, historians seem prone to collect names, subjects, eras, and organizations.  Poole asserted historians “would be well advised to involve archivists earlier and more frequently in the research process both formally and informally” (402).

Poole analyzed how historians use information technology in their research, concluding that many rejected the practice of quantitative history.  Studies revealed that historians fear sacrificing time using technology that might not make their work more productive, and they also were discouraged by adequate instruction about employing technology and by irrelevant results.  Ultimately, it seems that inertia prevents any real attention being given to how digital tools can augment historians’ traditional research methods.

Poole concluded with a list of possibilities for future research regarding historians, archivists, and information-seeking:

  • digital history
  • personal archiving
  • Web 2.0
  • democratization and public history
  • crowdsourcing and citizen archivists
  • digital curation
  • activism and social justice
  • diversity and demographics
  • education and training

It seems to me that personal archiving should be one of the most important areas of concern for manuscript repositories, as so many of the “papers” they may want to collect in the future will be in electronic formats.  And as a former teacher, I was intrigued by Poole’s questions regarding education and training.  The research seems to indicate that historians do not train their protégés in how to work with primary sources (whether print or electronic sources).  Because these implicit assumptions that history students know how to find, access, and interpret primary sources impact the work of archivists, should we also take on the responsibility of teaching these research skills?  I know some repositories have the staff on board who could facilitate such training, but I imagine many would chafe at the suggestion.  I particularly like the concept of archival literacy defined by Sammie Morris, Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, and Sharon A. Weiner (418):

  • “understanding and locating primary sources”
  • “developing a research question and an argument”
  • “soliciting feedback and guidance from archivists”
  • “showing increasing familiarity with archives”
  • “adhering to publication standards”
  • “progressively refining these skills”

As I frequently indicate, I see no point in archivists preserving materials permanently if they cannot be accessed and properly used, so I’m a proponent of doing our part to promote archival literacy.  Whether this is university archives working with first-year students or any repository working with K-12 students, I believe archival literacy is a worthy goal — and one we as a profession should figure out how to accomplish.