Archival Research Requests: Finding Balance

A lot of my job is driven by research requests.  These requests come from a range of audiences: academics, community members/scholars, genealogists, production companies, authors, students, and others.  I love the challenge of a particularly insightful research question and the sense of accomplishment that comes when you figure out a particularly tricky question or manage to find that one archival document that solves many riddles.

But I also get a lot of requests that I’m not able to solve. Often this is because we don’t have the information or collections they are looking for or in the case of residential school material the records may simply not exist.  For example, someone might be looking for information on their grandmother who attended residential school in Moose Factory in the early 1900s. We have a lot of quarterly returns, administration records, and photographs of the school.  But there is always a chance that the student list records we have do not go that far back or are incomplete.  Archives rely on donations and don’t have everything.

In other cases someone might know their family member lived in Muskoka in the 1800s but doesn’t have any additional details.  When this comes up we can ask questions to get more information but sometimes it’s impossible to move forward the request — there can be thousands of potential documents to comb through and we have limited resources.

I like helping people. I like being able to provide answers.  But archival research is time consuming and imperfect.  One of the things I’ve learned in the past few years is the need to be realistic around archives staff time and build in supports for research.  This might mean that basic reference requests are free but anything that takes substantial time or research is billable.  Or pointing researchers towards resources that they can access themselves online or in-person if they would like to continue their research independently.  Whatever path is decided on having a policy in place that you can point users to is essential.

Saying, “I’m sorry we don’t have what you’re looking for.” Isn’t bad public service.  Neither is “Without more information I’m not able to move this request forward. If you find out more I’d be happy to take another.”  A lot of the misunderstanding around these responses can by mitigated by explaining gaps in records, the nature of archival research, and providing suggestions of ways forward.

Teaching in the Archives a website dedicated to promoting teaching with primary sources and archives in new and innovative ways.  The site was developed through a grant that enabled the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) to partner with 18 faculty at three colleges near the archive.  This initiative, Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA), saw over 1100 students visiting BHS from 2011-2013 to engage with archival sources.

The site documents the three year project and provides an excellent resource for both archivists and instructors looking to engage students with primary source material.  After many student visits and the experience of inviting so many new visitors to the BHS the project came up with some basic guidelines for instructors wishing to integrate archives into their classroom:

  1. Define specific learning objects for each visit to an archives.  Each visit should be centered around an objective and relate to overall course goals.  
  2. The fewer documents the better.  Archive activities for students newly exposed to archives should focus on item-level document analysis.  Spend lots of time with fewer documents.
  3. Create opportunities for group learning.  Groups of 3-4 students work well for dealing with standard documents.  Group work can promote community, allow students to work through difficult sections together, and highlight the fact that document analysis can vary greatly between people. 
  4. Use direct and tailored research questions to guide student work. Avoid show and tell sessions in the archive.  Generic questions (what is this document, who created it) don’t highlight the intricate nature of archival sources and often don’t apply to all documents.  A couple of great examples of creating tailored handouts can be seen here.

The site is worth exploring if you’re looking for archives instructional resources.  The set of exercises on a range of common historical topics provided on the site is a great tool for those looking to develop their own instructional programs. There is also a selection of pedagogy based articles written by archivists and educators experienced with student archival instruction.

Many archives and educators struggle with effectively integrating collections into a range of courses.  Archival instruction and lessons based around primary sources can be valuable outside of historical methods classes.  Research, analysis, communication, and the ability to synthesize content are skills which reach across disciplines and can be reinforced by working with archival sources.