Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research

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  • Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research

    ANNE GILLILAND1 and SUE MCKEMMISH21Department of Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA(E-mail:; 2Caulfield School of Information Technology, Monash

    University, Melbourne, Australia (E-mail:

    Abstract. This article chronicles the rapid expansion since 1990 of research withinarchival science and characterizes contemporary archival research culture. It examines

    the role and state of key factors that have led to the development of the existing researchinfrastructure, such as growth in doctoral education, forums for presenting and pub-lishing research, the numbers and size of graduate archival education programs,

    availability of diverse funding for research, transdisciplinary and international researchcollaborations, and application of innovative research methods and tools appropriatefor investigating increasingly complex and wide-ranging research questions. An

    Appendix articulates and names archival research methods, including those derived andadapted from other disciplines, with a view to adding to the literary warrant forarchival research methods, promoting the rigorous application of research design andmethods, and providing sources for the teaching of research methods for professional

    and research careers. The article concludes with recommendations about how to sustainand extend the emerging research front.

    Keywords: archival research culture, research paradigms, research design, researchmethods


    Research plays an indispensable role in ensuring the growth and generalwell-being of any eld. It builds theories and models that provideframeworks for practice, as well as explain and describe the contextswithin which practice operates. It develops the elds knowledge baseand skills, and leads to a heightened understanding of its ethos andsocietal roles and how these have evolved over time. It promotes criticalenquiry and analysis, as well as reection upon and evaluation of thetheories, literature and practices of the eld and their development overtime. This results in increased rigour and sophistication in how theelds central precepts and practices are conceptualized and articulated.Research also helps to facilitate standardization, planning and assess-ment by identifying and building benchmark data within and across re-search areas, institutional settings, and local and national jurisdictions.

    Archival Science (2004) 4: 149197 Springer 2006DOI 10.1007/s10502-006-6742-6

  • In this article we characterize contemporary archival research cul-ture1 and explore emergent research infrastructures in terms of theresearch paradigms, designs, methods and techniques being employed.Specifically, the article identifies factors that have led to the develop-ment of this research culture. It then articulates and names archivalresearch methods, including those derived and adapted from otherdisciplines with a view to adding to the literary warrant for archi-val research methods, promoting the rigorous application of researchdesign and methods, and providing sources for the teaching ofresearch methods for professional and research careers.

    Characterizing Contemporary Archival Research Culture2

    The past 15 years have seen unprecedented growth in the develop-ment of an archival research consciousness in the academy and inpractice, as well as in scholarly awareness that the construct of thearchive, and recordkeeping more generally, provides a rich locus forresearch and theorising. What has resulted is an unparalleled diversityof what is being studied and how.

    In an article rst published in 1998, Carole Couture and DanielDucharme analysed archival literature written in English and Frenchbetween 1988 and 1998 that reflected upon the status of various fieldsof research in archival science (rather than literature reporting uponresearch being conducted). Couture and Ducharme drew upon 38texts in order to develop a typology of research in the fields of archi-val science. The article also includes several typologies of researchareas within the field of managing electronic records. Couture andDucharmes typology is included in Table I.3

    1 This paper uses the term archival throughout to include all aspects of archival science asmore traditionally understood through the life cycle model, as well as all aspects of the crea-tion, management, use, and social embeddedness of records that are delineated in the recordscontinuum model. The concept of archival research is similarly broadly construed and alsoincludes research on archival and recordkeeping topics being undertaken by researchers inancillary fields.2 This section of the article draws on papers presented at the Asian Pacific Conference on ArchivalEducators at Renmin University, Beijing, in April 2004 (by Gilliland-Swetland), and at theRecordkeeping Educators and Trainers Forum, Australian Society of Archivists AnnualConference, Sydney, in August 2002 (by Gilliland-Swetland and McKemmish), and published inAnne Gilliland-Swetland, Building the Research Front in Archival Studies, Shangxi Archives 3(2004): 1216. The examples provided in this section are mainly drawn from North America andAustralia as the authors are more familiar with developments in these areas.3 Couture, C. and Ducharme, D., Research in Archival Science: A Status Report, Archivaria 59(Spring 2005): 4167.


  • The following, non-exhaustive list of major and emergent areas ofarchival research is derived from an examination and categorization ofliterature reporting on archival research over the past decade (see TableII). This list, while it captures under different rubrics many of the sameresearch fields and content identified by Couture and Ducharme, illus-trates how broad as well as granular archival research engagement hasbecome. Moreover, if we consider that most of these areas can beapproached on at least three levels building, evaluating, and reflectingupon the potential range of research engagement is truly extensive.

    Table I. Typology of Research Fields in Archival Science, 198898 (Couture and Ducharme)

    Research field Content description

    1. The object and aim

    of archival science

    Archives as object (information/document/record)Goal: preservation, access,administrative efficiency, etc.

    Usefulness of archives2. Archives and society Role and place of archival science in society

    Archival science as a disciplineArchival science as a profession

    3. The history of archives

    and of archival science

    History of archivesDevelopment of the principles andfoundations of archival science

    4. Archival functions Record creation, appraisal, acquisition,arrangement, description, preservation, accessibility

    5. The management of

    archival programs

    and services

    Theory and practice of organizationsProgram planning and evaluationManagement, marketing and public relations

    6. Technology Information science as pertaining to archivesInformation, telecommunication, andnetwork systems

    7. Types of media and

    archives: electronic records

    Audiovisual, electronic, iconographic,and textual archives

    Microforms and other media or types of archives8. Archival environments Government institutions

    Teaching and research institutionsReligious institutionsOther institutions

    9. Specific issues related

    to archives

    EthicsAccess to information and privacyOthers


  • Although the breadth and innovation of this research is very excit-ing, there is scope for more depth, and especially a need for researchthat builds upon existing studies, and, as appropriate, develops andrevisits benchmark or comparative data. The eld too often relies upona single study of a particular phenomenon without encouraging addi-tional studies that might provide alternative or supporting data, or con-solidating what has already been discovered by pooling research eorts,e.g. through the formation of clusters of or forums for researchersengaged in similar types of research.4 When we add to this landscapethe dynamic of archival globalization as manifested through the devel-opment and application of international standards and archival andrecordkeeping law and policy, increasing trans-national and trans-juris-dictional research collaborations, and a heightened concern for address-ing the needs of the subaltern, several additional topics stand out as

    Table II. Identification of Major and Emergent Areas of Archival Research Engagement, 19952005 (Gilliland and McKemmish)

    Archival education

    Archival history

    Archival media

    Archival practice

    Archival research methods and techniques

    Archival systems

    Archival theory, ideas and concepts

    Archival tools and technology

    Archival use and usability (by specific user groups)

    Archives and recordkeeping metadata

    Archives and recordkeeping policy

    Development of descriptive models and schemas

    Electronic recordkeeping

    Ethnography of archival collaboration

    Ethnography of archival practice

    Ethnography of the archive

    Impact on the record of organizational and technological change and vice versa

    Psychology and ethnology of recordkeeping and use, including socialization

    into document creation and use

    Sociology and politics of the record and recordkeeping

    4 Examples of two areas where attempts have been made to bring together researchers working inthe same area to create such clusters are recordkeeping metadata (The Recordkeepng MetadataForum) and archival user studies (Ax-Snet).


  • emergent areas of research (see Table III). Unifying themes in theseemergent areas are the desire to look at issues that move beyond the lo-cal that span organizational, disciplinary, cultural, or national bound-aries; and also to examine the impact that colonization, whether it bepolitical, cultural, theoretical, or practice-based, has upon differentcommunities and constituencies.5

    As Tables II and III suggest, archival research is increasinglyaddressing not only the professional and managerial aspects of archi-val practice, but also disciplinary aspects such as studying and theo-rizing the record, the archive and the archives within theirorganizational, social, historical, cultural and information manage-ment contexts. Relative to the latter case, we can observe that overthe same period, the objects of interest to archival research, namelyrecords, records creation and other business processes, the archiveand the archives, governance, memory, identity construction, author-ity, authenticity, and preservation have also increasingly engagedscholars in other elds who approach them using a range of alternateepistemologies.6 In developing the archival research front, which hasincreasingly encompassed the broader perspectives on recordkeeping

    Table III. Emergent Areas of Research Related to Archival Globalization

    Exploration of ways to diversify the archival paradigm and understand associated

    power and empowerment issues

    Assessment of the impact of global research and international standards emanating

    from research upon local archival traditions and theory, as well as marginalized


    Post-colonial issues: the West vs. the Rest

    Evaluation, comparison and potential reconciliation of conflicting conceptual

    models and descriptive schema

    Records law and policy, including reconciliation of different juridical traditions

    Ontological, semantic, and ethno-methodological issues relating to developing

    understanding of emergent media forms

    Addressing terminological difference within the archival field and between it and

    other fields interested in some of the same issues

    5 For further discussion on this topic, see McKemmish, S., Gilliland, A. and Ketelaar, E.,Communities of Memory: Pluralising Archival Research and Education Agendas, Archivesand Manuscripts 33 (2005): 146175; and papers from ICHORA2 which will be published in aforthcoming issue of Archival Science.6 For example, see the two recent issues of History of the Human Sciences on TheArchive.


  • espoused by continuum thinking, it is important to be inclusive of allof these aspects. The field needs research that draws upon, builds,and understands the shifting symbioses between the applied and thetheoretical. The field also needs to establish a firm foothold withinthe academy by demonstrating that the discipline, as well as the prac-tice, brings to bear identifiable, distinctive and rigorous perspectivesand toolsets of methods and techniques.

    There are several other factors that attest to the growth of archivalresearch between 1990 and today. These include the engagement ofarchival scholars around the world in building new theories and mod-els; the increasing number of doctoral programs, and the growth innumbers of recent graduates of these programs who are now em-ployed in academic and other research positions; the increasing num-ber of full-time academics who are teaching and conducting archivalresearch; the growth in demand for research in practice; the increasedavailability of external funding for archival research as well as invest-ment, sponsorship and engagement by archival institutions, archivesand records programs, and professional and user communities; theinception of collaborative multidisciplinary national and internationalarchival research projects involving academics and practitioners; theincreasing numbers of research projects in other disciplines that incor-porate an archival component; the increasing number of journals pub-lishing archival research; and the enhancement of existing, anddevelopment of new archival research designs, methodologies andtechniques. The following sections examine these factors in moredepth.

    Development of new theories and models

    Although the archival literature has been replete for many decadeswith expository and discursive writings on the nature of archival the-ory and how it can or cannot be distinguished from praxis, little criti-cal attention has been paid until recently to how archival theory hasbeen, or should be built. A cadre of international archival scholarssuch as Upward, Cook, Nesmith, Brothman, Ketelaar and Harris,inuenced by philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida as well as bylocal and national social and political events and movements, havebeen engaged, since the early 1990s, in re-thinking and debating thetheories and models around which archival practice has been centred


  • for most of the Twentieth Century.7 Arguably such intellectual fer-ment has occurred at other points in modern archival history, mostnotably around the historical articulation and adoption of the princi-ples of respect des fonds and provenance,8 and the manifold re-examin-ations of appraisal theory in the 1980s and early 1990s in response toHans Booms reflections on the role and conduct of appraisal in lightof communism, the rise of social history and the proliferation ofrecords created through new...