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.