AHA Recap

January 17, 2013

On Saturday, January 5, I had the opportunity to present findings from Ithaka S+R’s recent project on “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians.” This was not the first presentation of findings from the project, but because this particular one took the form of a roundtable of four historians at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, it was especially interesting. My colleagues on the panel were Francis X. Blouin (University of Michigan), Sharon Leon (George Mason University, who blogged her remarks), Stefan Tanaka (University of California San Diego), and Rob Townsend (American Historical Association). Each offered reactions of approximately 10 minutes, and there was good engagement with other attendees as well, suggesting that our report will help historians and support providers make improvements to support services and graduate student education.

 
Through the course of the morning, some overall themes emerged. First, there was wide agreement about what, echoing our findings, Rob called the “anarchic state of research practices.” Panelists confirmed that there is an overall absence of training for PhD students, fed in part by an inability to discuss practices “in polite company” because such practices are deeply personal. In addition, tools that may be useful for individual activities such as citation management do not effectively suit the overall research process, from managing digitized images to gaining intellectual control and shaping a narrative. It was also noted ruefully that history departments teach their graduate students neither research practices nor teaching practices, and several members of the panel wondered if it would be possible for departments to offer professional training. Fran proposed creating a template for a relevant graduate course or courses, and Sharon suggested that summer institutes for novice digital historians would be an especially valuable format.
 
Second, while our report indicated that historians greatly appreciate the expertise of the archivist, there was real concern as to whether archives and archivists are as well positioned to serve the needs of the field, especially in a digital environment. Stefan noted that although archivists are preserving the content of Twitter, all too many hard drives containing documents of political and economic significance are regularly destroyed. Fran underscored suspicions that archivists are decreasingly well positioned to facilitate access to archival materials, as the breadth of content grows and historians seek new and integrated uses for it, echoing arguments he offered in Processing the Past. Efforts to bring archivists and historians together to discuss pragmatic directions forward did not, apparently, succeed, with a joint AHA/SAA initiative to this effect abandoned a decade ago. Will historians need to invest, as Fran suggested, in sharing knowledge about sources with one another, rather than relying on archivists’ expertise?
 
Third, there was some skepticism, given historical perspective, as to whether the current moment is transformational. Rob raised this point explicitly, and others also questioned for example whether digital captures are anything more than the evolution of technology, following on for example the ability to photocopy archival materials. Our report saw this particular development as a major point of departure, not least for the opportunity it could afford archives to unlock their collections through improved description and discovery, if these images were managed collaboratively. 
 
There was comparatively little discussion about the role and value of the academic librarian. One librarian present indicated that while some sections of the report initially led her to feel defensive about her role as subject specialist for history, she has never had as much engagement from historians at her university as she did from sharing this report with them. We would be grateful for additional anecdotes or evidence of how librarians, archivists, and history faculty members and departments are using these findings and recommendations. Please feel free to add a comment below, or to send those examples to me directly.
 
As chair of the panel and an author of the report, I was thrilled that our findings on scholarly practices could provoke so many different types of opportunities, for history departments and research support service providers alike, to take steps to address historians’ needs. Our hope is that this report, and forthcoming projects in our Research Support Services program, helps scholars to be increasingly well supported. 
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