historians and their fact-finding

I’ve been browsing through studies of archival users over the past few days and have been finding them fascinating. (This probably says something about me.) There seems to have been a huge upsurge in interest in studying users within the archival profession in the past 15-20 years. Many of these studies, not surprisingly, focus on people conducting historical research: usually historians, but also other academic researchers, as well as genealogists, who I believe are the largest group of archives users in North America.*

I plan to write up something more detailed about these studies; having once been a(n) historian in training, I’ve been particularly interested in the studies focused on professional historians. Although that genealogy one linked above is great too, as I’ve done some casual family history searches, but nothing like what the professionals do.

In the meantime, I have a reference request: is there a study, or even a reflective article, by a historian that discusses the use of archival tools such as finding aids? Almost all of the user studies I’ve found are by archivists or others in the information professions. Meanwhile, most historical writing about archives I’ve seen generally discusses physical locations, access considerations, and maybe archivists, but then bypasses the routines of searching and requesting to jump to the archival material itself. There might be references to classification systems or organizational arrangements, but those aren’t really the focus of the writing. And then you’re left with the familiar scene of the historian alone with the sources – the emphasis is on the information sought, not the information seeking, and the latter is what I’m looking for.

I suppose this is a question that might be better on something like twitter, but it always seems like I’m on twitter late at night when no one’s around. Also, I think I might have gone over 140 characters.

*It would be interesting to know if this is true of archives use, as well as users. That is, do genealogists as a group request more material than historians (assuming historians are the second largest group)? Or do historians request so much material that, on aggregate, it outnumbers genealogical requests? And while I’m asking, how much overlap is there between these two types of requests?

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