Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reflections on Archival User Studies

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reflections on Archival User Studies

Article excerpt

The library profession has conducted many user studies since the first user study appeared in the late 1940s, but the archival profession has paid attention to archival user studies only since the 1980s. In the 1980s several archivists criticized the archival community for only impressionistically or anecdotally understanding users, and they championed a systematic approach to studying users. (1) Since then, user studies have been touted as a useful tool for collecting information about users and their use, including who uses archival materials and institutions, what users need, how they locate archival materials, what kind of archival materials and access tools they prefer, and how they use gathered archival materials. Since the 1980s, not only has the archival environment changed (e.g., archival information systems, services, and access tools), but archival users and their use have changed as well. Several factors, such as changing research trends, research interests, and developing technology, have also changed archival user studies. Unfortunately, there is no study exclusively focusing on this development of archival user studies, so it is unclear how they have changed.

Most of the existing literature on archival user studies only partially describes previous literature or focuses only on user studies dealing with specific research topics. For instance, Lisa R. Coats reviewed the literature on user studies of online archival finding aids. (2) Carolyn Harris reviewed literature published since the late 1990s investigating archives users in the digital era. (3) Anneli Sundqvist reviewed a number of examples in the literature on how the English and Swedish archival discourses conceptualize users and use of records. (4)

This study answers the following research questions about the development of archival user studies themselves: How has the nature of user studies changed over the past thirty years? How have user studies been conducted? It examines and analyzes the US and Canadian literature on archival user studies to trace their past, characterize their present, and uncover the issues and challenges facing the archival community in conducting user studies.

This paper's analysis of the development of archival user studies could help assess whether previous archival user studies have been properly conducted. It reveals issues and limitations of existing user studies and suggests ways to improve future ones and better utilize their results in archival functions and practices. Archivists reading this paper may discover informative user studies conducted in the same context as their own institutions. Ultimately, archivists can more effectively serve their institutions' users by knowing more about them. This study aims to increase and clarify the archival community's knowledge of the user studies that obtain this information.


To identify valid and reliable characteristics about archival user studies, the author examined, analyzed, and synthesized publications on archival user studies. This study rests on a broad analysis of the archival literature, but many of the examined works came from four journals, from their initiation year to December 2011: American Archivist, Archivaria, and Archival Science, because they are the top three archival journals in "Proposed Journal Ranking List for Archives and Records Management" (2009), and Journal of Archival Organization, which was recommended by many researchers. (5) To select articles for analysis, the author reviewed these journals' tables of contents and abstracts for the keywords "user study" and "use study," focusing on investigations that used empirical research methods. The author scanned the full text of candidate articles and articles whose topic was not made clear by the abstract or title.

In addition, the author searched bibliographical utilities (e.g., Library and Information Science Abstracts and Library Literature and Information Science). …

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