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close this book Access to archival records: A review of current issues: A RAMP study
View the document Preface
View the document Acknowledgment
View the document Introduction
Open this folder and view contents 1. Factors influencing the consultation and dissemination of archival information
View the document 2. The changing nature of access and use
Open this folder and view contents 3. Enhancing awareness of archival holdings
View the document 4. Enhancing access and use of archival holdings
View the document 5. Costing of holdings and services
View the document 6. Networking
View the document Conclusion
View the document Bibliography

2. The changing nature of access and use

2.1 Principles of access to archives have evolved over time. As Michel Duchein explained in his RAMP study on obstacles to the access, use, and transfer of information from archives, before the nineteenth century, access to archives was strictly controlled and limited. Since archives existed primarily to serve the legal needs of records creators, their use was limited to the bureaucracies that controlled them. The only exceptions were those countries influenced by democratic movements and in which access rules were somewhat relaxed. To this day, creators of records have remained an important user group in archives, as the collective memory of organizations is consulted for a variety of reasons from documenting past decisions to developing a sense of corporate identity.

2.2 The nineteenth century witnessed a gradual and cumulative opening of public archives to historians in European countries. Over time, this situation nourished an intimate relationship between historians and the custodians of archival records. Indeed, both professions came to be trained within the same discipline: academic history. This reality has continued to this day in some countries. In others, and particularly in North America, archival graduate education programmes began to be established in the 1980s and have come to be seen as the future ideal for training new archivists.

2.3 It is undoubtedly true that historians and their students remain valuable clients of archives, for two key reasons. On the one hand, they are responsible for providing leadership in the area of historical research. This implies that the profession is expected to use archives to delve into those issues that are central to a society's collective memory. On the other hand, their work provides, sometimes inadvertently, the intellectual fabric from which historical knowledge is expressed or "trickled down" to more general audiences through occasional best-sellers by historians themselves, and more often by the work of others through school textbooks, popular or journalistic history, films, plays, television, and even opera. In doing so, historians provide learned interpretation - and consequently increased worth - of the documentary heritage. In recent years, historians have been joined by colleagues from other academic disciplines in these endeavours.

2.4 In the last few decades, however, other types of researchers have joined academics in their use of archives, and archivists, because of their natural bias to historians, have sometimes been slow to acknowledge this change. The place of archives in society has consequently changed. As Bernhard Vogel has so well stated, "Les archives ne sont plus la "mémoire" de ['administration, elles tendant (sic) de plus en plus a devenir une entreprise de services pour le citoyen. Among these "citizen-users," the most important group consists of family historians. For those countries populated as part of the great human migrations of the last few centuries, family history is being used to recreate the historical continuum. In this context, family history - or genealogy - differs considerably from the traditional search for "pedigree. In recent years, interest in family history has expanded from looking for family roots to exploring the related social and economic environment in which the family lived. The link between family and local history, consequently, is close. And since every citizen is a potential family historian, the prospect for growth among this researcher group is great.

2.5 Interest in family history is not prominent in all countries. In Russia, for instance, the genealogical tradition is more scholarly than popular, with an emphasis on the study of heraldry and the search for aristocratic roots. Nonetheless, there is a strong tradition of keeping vital statistics of an official nature from which much genealogical information may be obtained. The Australians have never had a sizeable genealogical community, in part, some say, because of the desire to hide or obscure the linkage of many citizens to convict settlers. As for China, genealogical information in private possession was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, either by the Red Guard, or by the frightened families themselves. In certain countries, archival records do not lend themselves well to such research; in other cases, records of interest to genealogists are not permanently preserved.

2.6 Archives are also increasingly consulted by "professional" researchers who seek answers to specific questions. They include lawyers, publishers, journalists, environmentalists, criminal investigators, etc. In all of these cases, these individuals have kale interest in the research process per se. They turn to archives to resolve specific issues or to locate specific pieces of factual information; in most cases, they will never be repeat visitors.

2.7 There is another, less homogeneous group, which Paul Conway has described as "avocational" researchers. These individuals are willing to "pursue their interests in greater depth over a longer period of time than more focused personal researchers." Their research queries vary and include subjects such as prominent historical events, for instance the American Civil War, and other topics such as shipwrecks, military events and related artifacts, unidentified flying objects, railway lore, and abandoned gold mines. Indeed, the interests of avocational researchers are as diversified as the holdings themselves. Avocational researchers are motivated by personal curiosity; archival information is only one step in the process they choose to gain understanding of an issue. This research community may increase radically in the coming years as communication technologies facilitate electronic grazing from home facilities.

2.8 Finally, a significant percentage of archives users consist of archives staff who need to consult records on a regular basis to perform their custodial and reference work. It is difficult to gauge the impact of this user group as most archives do not monitor access to holdings by their own staff. Furthermore, access policies and procedures for staff are often unclear or unexistent.

2.9 Traditional assumptions concerning archival research started changing in the 1980s when systematic reviews of the use made of archival information, and of the users themselves, were undertaken. The motives for initiating such "user studies" were both administrative and operational. For one, archives were starting to be affected by the resource implications resulting from providing access to a multiplicity of records for increasingly diverse user communities. In line with this growth and diversity, researcher expectations in the area of reference services were starting to shift, thus forcing archives to review their own acquisition, control, and access practices.

2.10 American archivists were the first to show an interest in conducting user studies. Influenced by seminal works written by Bruce Dearstyne, Paul Conway, Elsie Freeman, Mary Jo Pugh, and Lawrence Dowler, many embarked on systematic studies of their research clientèles and research uses of their holdings. The first major user study was undertaken by the National Archives of Canada in 1984 as part of its programme evaluation cycled This study, probably the most extensive ever conducted in the international archival community, led to an important restructuring of the institution where reference activities were centralized.

2.11 User studies can be structured to answer a variety of questions. Bruce Dearstyne's framework addresses six areas: tracking and studying research use, interpreting and reporting on the significance of that use, promoting increased use, emphasizing use as a means of garnering programme support, reaching out to the researcher community as a partner in dealing with difficult archival problems, and expanding the concept of reference service to a broader notion of researcher service, or public service. Paul Conway offers a model that assesses three elements of reference services: quality - how well archivists understand and meet the information needs of their users, integrity - how well archivists balance their obligations to preserve materials against their obligations to make them available, and value - the effects of use on individuals, groups, and society as a whole.

2.12 Other user studies can focus on specific questions. David Bearman conducted a study of "user presentation language" in which all types of inquiries from patrons and staff were recorded in a number of American institutions on a given day. The objective was to address two problems identified in previous studies: that "they ignored the large number of questions that are posed by staff, and they (other studies) recorded profiles of users, but not the contents of their questions, thus leaving us with some knowledge of who users are, but only prejudice about what each category of user might want." Ann D. Gordon, on the other hand, conducted a study to "find out how historical researchers gain access to sources and what obstacles they encounter." In all cases, these works were intended to make archives reflect on the effectiveness of their own practices as these affect researchers.

2.13 User studies to date have tended to confirm archivists' assumptions concerning their users. For one, academic researchers make up only a small percentage of an institution's clientele. Furthermore, scholars depend to a great extent on the "academic grapevine" to identify sources of interest. Finally, a significant proportion of scholarly work is done altogether without consulting primary sources.

2.14 In most cases, it was reported that the proportion of clients whose background or research purposes cannot be easily identified continues to grow. They are the avocational researchers to whom Paul Conway has referred. Many are attracted to archives because of the inherent possibilities for research that their holdings present. Others are curious about what services archives can provide. Unfortunately, archives have yet to assess their own services in light of these user needs. And by upholding traditional access practices, they impose greater research obstacles for these users.

2.15 User studies have also pointed to some important weaknesses in the tools archives have used to make information available. Current descriptive and access practices can only support research environments in which archivists actively mediate the request-response scenario. Finding aids, which are often records-specific, do not provide enough contextual introduction to the records to enable independent research. Furthermore, archives' fractured approach to description has lead to fractured approaches to research. This is an environment with an in-built assumption of low use and even lesser quality of service. It has even been argued that archivists prepare finding aids in such a fashion that an archivist's intervention is always necessary.

2.16 User studies have also confirmed the changing patterns of archival research. Increased costs in travel and the proliferation of communication tools have decreased on-site visits to repositories. Increasingly, researchers prefer to consult holdings in their home locations. In some cases, telecommunication tools must be used; in others, traditional technology such as microform can effectively satisfy these needs. At the very least, researchers expect to be able to limit their stay at a repository to a minimum by being able to prepare for their visits in advance.

2.17 Some users are less interested in consulting actual documents than in having access to the information they contain. In such cases, archives are called upon to manipulate information to suit client needs. Expectations that archives can provide the same services as photographic stock-shot operations, where a particular image and caption can be provided within hours, is an example of such expectations. These services, when offered, are cost and labour intensive and lend themselves to user fees.

2.18 Given the results of user studies conducted to date, it has become imperative for archives to take time to examine the makeup and needs of their potential and existing user groups, and compare them with the services they currently provide. These services must be adjusted regularly so that users are provided with the tools necessary to exploit successfully available resources. Finally, as a member of the greater information community, archives must participate fully in the development of communication technologies that will eventually "carry" the information they hold to the world beyond their institutional doors.