As scholars study rare documents at archives and libraries around the world, they are bringing their smartphones and using them in their research.
At the annual Center for Jewish History event Archival Leaders Advocate on Thursday, Sept. 12 a panel discussed how new technology is changing scholarly research methods and what libraries and archives might do to address those changes. The discussion centered on a new Ithaka S+R report, “The Role of Archives in Supporting Changing Research Practices.” Ithaka S+R is the research group of ITHAKA, the non-profit that provides digital access to over 1500 academic journals through its JSTOR service.
Panel moderator Jefferson Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metro NY Library Council, relayed his recent experience at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Maryland where scholars have been doing a lot of their own digital capturing, even setting up camera stands to photograph items.
Roger Schonfeld, a co-author of the report, said that the scholars interviewed have a strong appreciation for archivists with a deep expertise and who really know their collections. Scholars also said that for the most efficient discovery tool, Google Books often trumps looking in a book’s index. Schonfeld caught my attention most when he talked about the anxiety scholars felt to be comprehensive in their research. Schonfeld suggested that some of this anxiety could be prevented with research tools that could narrow search results to the tens instead of hundreds to sift through.
Melanie Meyers, Senior Reference Services Librarian for Special Collections at the Center for Jewish History was interested in how archives are handling the growing trend of researchers using iPhones at archives to curate and compile their own portable digital archives. She asked the open question of whether it is possible to take advantage of this trend. I think there could be an opportunity, for instance, in using scholar’s iPhone photographs and linking them directly to the online finding aid.
David Ludden feels that taking iPhone photos in archives leads to a “dismembering” of archives. Ludden, a Professor of History at NYU who was interviewed for the report, raised concerns that when people photograph parts of archives, the archival materials can be taken out of context or have their contexts altered. He equated the act of digital capture to the looting of unprotected archaeological sites. Ludden concluded with a plea to JSTOR to make their research materials more affordable and widely available.
Kate Theimer, a writer and blogger about archives at ArchivesNext, suggested that the report’s recommendations lacked guidance for archivists. Theimer feels archivists are already making efforts to address the changing needs of researchers, including the continuation of digitization efforts and accessibility of finding aids.
A common theme of the evening was the challenge of providing graduate students access to research training in archives and libraries. The question made me think that archive education could start even sooner than graduate school. Perhaps exposing high school students to archives could set them on a research track that would make them research experts by the time they are starting PhD programs.
P.S. Another topic discussed was “archival silences” and theories of missing links in relation to digitization, but I plan to cover that more in depth soon!
Illustrations: Library Manifesto