Reading Response: Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians

By: Leah Marks

This week I will responding to the 2012 report Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. It was written by Jennifer Rutner and Roger C. Schonfeld and published by Ithika S+R. The goal of the report was to offer a series of recommendations to improve the field of history and to optimize the process of research for both students and professional historians. They did this by speaking with a few key groups. These include “research support professionals”, i.e. librarians and professionals that work in archives associated with libraries, and academic historians and graduate students.

Key Findings

Rutner and Schonfeld produced four key findings at the end of their research. These are:

  1. “Gaining Intellectual Control”- Historians are struggling to properly organize the growing number of research available to both digitally and physically.
  2. “Discovery and Digitization”- Those interviewed emphasized the value of online finding aids.
  3. “The Library and Archive”- While they were very happy with digitization efforts of librarians, Historians were concerned the librarians do not have a sufficient understand of the sub fields they specialize in and therefore cannot provide enough assistance throughout the research process.
  4. “Support vs. Collaboration”- Increased collaboration between departments, libraries, and services providers was recommended.

Recommendations

The report offers a series of recommendations, all of which I do not have the space to list but I will attempt to include the most relevant ones.

a. Archives should continue to work on digitizing both their materials and their findings aids.

b. Archives should create more tools to facilite the discovery of sources related to the historians topic. In addition they should offer training the Phd student in the use of their archive.

c. Libraries should expand their partnerships with other libraries. This includes expanding what is available to borrow and making staff at partner institutions available to provide aid to historians.

d. Providers of research materials such as Google Books should increase access to foreign language material.

e. Providers also need to address concerns related the quality of the content they digitize.

My Response:

Overall, I was surprised by how much I related to the concerns expressed by the historians interviewed for this report, espcially since it was published ten years ago. As a graduate student, I rely heavily on digitzed content for my research as I don’t have unlimited reasources to travel. In addtion, I often find myself completely overwhelmed when navigating a new archive with no assistance from librarians or archivists. Despite the continuing development of new digital tools, I still struggle with some of these same issues.

Questions:

  1. Would you add anything if given the opportunity to be interviewed by the authors of this report? Why or Why not?
  2. Which digital tools do you find yourself using the most? Were they mentioned in the report?
  3. Is there anything you did not agree with in this report?
  4. If this report was to be reproduced ten years later do you think the findings would differ? How so?

3 Replies to “Reading Response: Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians”

  1. Hi Leah! Great summary.

    I can come at this from the other side – I’m currently filling in for the research librarian at the DC History Center.

    I definitely agree with how useful online finding aids are, and how useful digitized resources are in general.

    I think if this study was reproduced now, it would find that libraries/archives have largely progressed on this digitization. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, a ton of repositories have focused on making content, or at least finding aids, available online.

    The biggest obstacle for a lot of these recommendations, though, is funding. Points A, B, and E all rely on having the personnel and funding available to digitize collections, train researchers, and improve the quality of digitized resources. Digitizing especially takes time and effort – there are no shortcuts. Institutions need to prioritize these points if we’re ever going to achieve them, but funders also need to prioritize them.

    As an aside, the DC History Center has a ton of great research guides that point to online and local resources. Highly recommend! http://dchistory.org/research/guides/

  2. Great post Leah,

    I agree with the points you made in your post. If the book was posted 10 years later, I think it would include the effect COVID has had on digital archiving and making it more useful for historians. I also think the book would talk about the different online archiving resources created online to make historical scholarship more accessible to the public. It also shows that other people rather than only historians can contribute to scholarship. The author can talk about the different ways traditional archives have made progress in digitizing their content and the challenges they faced when doing so. Also it could talk about ways that provide have created more quality and credible content for historians and the public.

  3. Hello Leah,
    I agree with you that I rely almost exclusively on digitized content. For example, I am pretty reliant on being able to term search for the materials I want. In completing my project for this class, I was typing in someone’s name into a Proquest and looking for articles where it turned up. The issue is, that Proquest’s ability to find terms within the article is not perfect. I thought about how I may be missing articles on this person because the database does not have a good enough image of the newspaper to decipher all the words on it. So I would agree with the reading’s assessment of historians being worried about finding everything they need for their research.
    In addition, I still feel like my experience in an archive with finding aids is still limited. I have had to teach myself a lot about how to use archives and other tools like EndNote.

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