Debunking Archival Research Myths

For most archivists, research continues to be shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately this contributes to the growing gap between practitioners and researchers in our profession.

This blog post sets out to debunk a couple of myths that are stopping people from doing research.

Myth 1: I don’t have the authority to do research.

FALSE. Everyone is an expert in something. The first trick is to identify what you know.

Example: I have only worked in the profession for three years. So last year, a couple of us organised a panel discussion at the ASA Conference about what it was like to be a new professional in the Australian archival sector.

Myth 2: Everything’s already been done.

FALSE. The more you read, and the more conferences you go to, the better you get at identifying the gaps. The second trick is reading as widely as possible. Join your professional association and gain access to their journals, you will soon be overwhelmed by how much has not yet been rigorously considered. Journal articles will help you out here by identifying their own limitations.

Example: “The impact of the WW1 centenary on the public’s exposure to archival material was out of scope”. Remember: Another article’s limitation is your opportunity.

Myth 3: I don’t write well enough.

FALSE. The more you read and the more you write, the more you get the hang of the jargon. Journal articles are written in dense, academic language because the writers want to convey complex ideas in fewer words. Every writer approaches things differently; compare the dense, academic style of the Canadian academic Terry Cook with the more conversational style of practitioner Cassie Findlay. The more you write, the more you will develop your own style. Start your own blog or contribute to others’ (e.g. the Recordkeeping Roundtable.

Myth 4: I don’t know how.

Ok, this one is possibly true. However it’s one of the easiest obstacles to overcome! In order to get your research published you need to prove two things: that the research was rigorous and that you are contributing to existing knowledge.

You demonstrate these two things by completing the following process:

  1. Identifying the gap in existing knowledge through a literature review
  2. Articulating your research question, adapting the literature review accordingly
  3. Designing your methodology to best suit your research question
  4. Collecting your data
  5. Analysing your data
  6. Comparing your findings with existing knowledge
  7. Identifing what new knowledge has been gained
  8. Writing it up

I would recommend getting your hands on this book as it guides you through the steps listed above.


Of course there are little tips and tricks that I’ve only learnt by asking experienced researchers. The best advice I can give is just to talk with as many people as possible. Collaboration opportunities are likely to come your way if people know you are interested.


‘Let me tell you’: Designing personal digital archives for children in out-of-home care

This post is a re blog of the post I wrote for the Find & Connect Web Resource Blog on 27/06/2016.

This blog post introduces the Master’s Thesis of Annelie de Villiers, who recently completed her Masters in Archival systems at Monash University.

Personal recordkeeping refers to the processes of creating, capturing, organising and pluralising records of a personal nature, whether by the individuals themselves or by others. This means that the records that are created about a child in out-of-home care (OOHC) actually forms part of that child’s personal recordkeeping.

So why do Care Leavers have so much trouble accessing their records? Why are the records often incomplete, incorrect and upsetting?

In the past, the Australian Care sector has created records as part of everyday business processes – for example, about Care decisions and children’s medical reports. Because these records were created without the understanding that the child might one day see them, the records can be confronting and upsetting. Care Leavers sometimes report feeling re-traumatised after accessing their records. They had hoped for something that would be personally meaningful and help them to make sense of their past and the records did not deliver.

If the Care sector recognised that their records were evidence of a child’s life and therefore formed part of that child’s personal recordkeeping the nature of their records would be very different. Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that the Australian Care system is continuing to create business-centric records, meaning that alternative measures of supporting the children’s personal and collective identity need to be explored.

My Life Story Book Front Cover

One example of an alternative personal recordkeeping practice is life story work. Life story work has been applied more broadly across the Australian Care sector in recent years. I was prompted to do my research when I found the NSW Department of Family & Community Services’ My Life Story book – the Aboriginal version (download) .

Life story work involves the child or young adult engaging in narrative therapy with an adult in order to help make sense of their experiences.

As young people are more interested in engaging with life story work if it is in a digital format I first wanted set out to design a digital life story resource for children and young people in OOHC. Because there are more Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander children removed from home now than ever before, this project also aimed to identify the personal recordkeeping requirements of Indigenous children.

I quickly realised that even if such a resource was built, there is currently no underlying infrastructure or governance framework to support it. As a result, the research looked instead at how personal digital archives can be developed for children and young people in OOHC. After conducting a number of interviews, the project resulted in a set of design requirements for such a system.

Here are some of the requirements identified:

  • The system would need to be secure.
  • The repository would need to hold authoritative records (e.g. birth certificates) in an ‘administrative’ collection which is accessible by the child, carer and social worker(s).
  • The repository would need to hold records of a personal nature which is accessible only by the child.
  • The system needs to be interoperable.

At the ‘back end’, such a resource would be composed of two platforms; the first being the actual personal digital archive repository, the second being an interactive platform where the child or young person engages with their records – or creates new ones – in a meaningful way. While no system should ever replace face-to-face engagement, the use of such a system would acknowledge the right of a child or young person to their personal records.

For those who are interested in seeing the full set of requirements – the thesis ‘Let me tell you’: Designing personal digital archives for children in out-of-home care is currently undergoing review before being made available through Monash University’s Faculty of IT.


Survey for Volunteers in Australian Archives

You can all stop holding your breath, as we are now launching the survey which was proposed at the 2015 ASA conference! *collective intake of breath*

We can’t wait for you to pass it on to your volunteers in order to gain a better insight into their collective experiences and motivations, knowing that this knowledge would help to improve your volunteer program.

Volunteers within the Australian archival/records sector are invited to complete the following survey:

take the survey

Please note: Volunteers are not asked to identify which institution they volunteer for, and their involvement and responses will be kept private and anonymous.

More details

This study will address the following research questions:

1. Who are our volunteers?
2. What motivates our volunteers?
3. What type of experiences/support does the Australian archival community offer?

An understanding of the above will assist in improving the experience of volunteers within the archives, resulting in the creation of archival advocates within – and improved relationships with – the communities we serve.

The results of this study will be presented at the 2016 ASA Conference, and we plan for it to help to inform the development of a best practice resource for the Australian Society of Archivists. Additionally, we hope to publish this study in the future.

About us

Annelie de Villiers and Nicola Laurent are Research Archivists at the University of Melbourne’s eScholarship Research Centre. Christopher Stueven is a Records Officer at the University of Melbourne.

Please feel free to submit any queries about the research or the best practice resource to Annelie at

Our thanks in advance!

Annelie, Chris and Nicola


Social Media and Collaboration Opportunities in the Archival Sector


Network by Simon Cockell

I previously published a post on the importance of using social media to bridge the gap between practitioners and researchers within the archival sector. Given the response I decided to do a little follow-up with a few social media tips and upcoming collaboration opportunities.

Social media presents us with the opportunity to collaborate with one another, in accessible language which not only increases the reach and impact of your ideas, but also fosters collaborative opportunities. Aligning our professions’ research activities with industry requirements would be to the benefit of us all.

It is essential to engage with social media in a strategic and conscious manner. In order to derive the full potential of engaging with social media I have compiled a short list of the most important things to consider when engaging with social media:

What are you hoping to communicate?

Decide what type of information you would like to communicate to your audience. Are you hoping to explore complex concepts or are you wanting to share information about upcoming events? Remember that one of the most crucial parts of communicating your ideas/innovations are convincing the reader why they should care.

Who are you hoping to communicate to?

Are you hoping to communicate to academics, practitioners or the community with which you work? This determines the language and the approach you take. Don’t shy away from complex concepts when communicating to the lay-person, just ensure that you make your content accessible and interesting. The golden rule: Don’t ever talk down to your audience.

Choose your medium/platform

Different platforms cater toward different content and types of communication. In my opinion, Twitter and Blogging is most widely engaged with amongst Australian archivists.


Twitter is most effective as a means of communicating ideas, sharing resources and highlighting upcoming events. The downside of Twitter is that it limits you to 140 characters, which is fine when communicating facts, however in the humanities we are often trying to convey ideas.


Blogging allows you to explore ideas more thoroughly and is also free through services such as WordPress. Blogging does take a fair bit of commitment as the best blogs are added to on a semi-regular basis. However, if you are like me and enjoy writing, the content will add up quite organically.

Remember: Don’t just ‘shout into the void’. Social media enables conversation and collaboration to take place. Take advantage of this capability and join the conversation. A forum is no good if no one actually takes hold of the opportunities it presents.

Don’t be afraid of having a considered opinion. This is how you stimulate discussion! The #fundTROVE letter which was written by Cate O’Neill, Nicola Laurent and myself got an overwhelming response because it was topical and also took a stance on an important issue.

Upcoming opportunities for cross-engagement between archival researchers and practitioners:

  • Leisa Gibbons has put out a call for interview participants for her web-archiving research project. She is asking for any researchers or practitioners with an interest in social media web archiving.
  • On the 10th of March, Library and Information Science Research will be hosting a virtual panel discussion in order to consider the roles of researcher-practitioners in Australia. All are welcome to join.
  • Become a member of the Australian Society of Archivists’ Archives Live website. This service is free to the community and offers opportunities to engage on forums and follow blogs.
  • Start reading and engaging with blogs; New Cardigan has a great list of Australian GLAM blogs.

If you have not already done so, consider starting your own Twitter account! You will become aware of the overwhelming amount of opportunities for collaboration between archival researchers and practitioners.



In case you missed it: The Australian federal government is significantly cutting funding to the National Library of Australia. One of the services that will be most detrimentally impacted is Trove, which will no longer be able to aggregate content from museums and universities unless fully funded to do so.

This proposed move has resulted in a groundswell of support and outrage from the Australian community (see #fundTROVE)

If you would like to express your concerns beyond Twitter, please feel free to adapt the template letter below and send it to your local member, your state/territory senator and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.

This letter was drafted by the Cate O’Neill, Nicola Laurent and myself at the request of Gavan McCarthy.

Your name
123 Address St
St Kilda East, VIC 3183
Phone no

24 February 2016

Local Member
Member for xxxx
74 Address Blvd
St Kilda, VIC 3182

Dear [Local Member],

I am calling on you to reject the proposed funding cuts to the National Library of Australia, to stop the detrimental impact it will have on Trove, the NLA’s world leading knowledge repository.

Trove has revolutionised the way we locate vital historical resources about Australia and Australians. Since it was launched in 2009, it has become firmly established as an indispensable tool for all levels of the Australian community.

Trove not only creates pathways to the treasures within the NLA’s collection, but it also connects people to the wealth of resources held in the distributed national collections in various local and state cultural institutions.

The proposal to cease the aggregation of content into Trove from museums and universities (unless fully funded to do so) will severely, and detrimentally, impact Trove, leading to stagnation.

It is the continual inputs from and collaboration with Trove’s content partners that make it the world-leading resource it is today. The decisions to cease aggregating content is entirely at odds with the purpose of Trove, as a gateway to aggregated content it is meaningless without regular updates.

Trove has had tremendous success through crowdsourcing, using volunteers to transcribe historical newspaper articles, creating its own community, and making content more accessible. The community outcry to the proposed cuts demonstrates just how Trove belongs to all of us. As university researchers a world without Trove is unimaginable to the way we now work and disseminate our research. The #fundTrove hashtag on Twitter demonstrates the groundswell of support and provides numerous examples of how Trove is used by a huge cross section of the Australian community to learn more about the past and explore who we are.

We are requesting your help, as a matter of urgency, to halt the proposed cuts to the NLA, and to restore adequate funding levels to meet community need.


Your name

For your convenience, here are the mailing addresses of Communications Minister Mitch Fifield:

At his electorate office:

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield
42 Florence Street

At his Parliament House office in Canberra:

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield
Parliament House


No More Gatekeepers! Social media engagement breaks down barriers within the archival sector


The Five Underlying Dynamics of Social Technologies – Gaurav Mishra


The irrefutable strength of social media is in its ability to break down barriers. We usually talk about this quality in terms of social media’s ability to overcome issues of time and space, but in this post I want to focus on its’ ability to overcome barriers between groups; say… between researchers and practitioners in the Australian archival sector.

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains generalisations for the sake of argument.

In recent decades, the archival profession has strived to overcome the ‘gatekeeper mentality’ which has previously hamstrung segments of our profession and harmed members of the wider community (Humphreys and Kertesz, 2012). Now however, I’d like to bring your attention to emerging barriers – those which exist between academics and practitioners within the Australian archival sector.

Consider this; you are at an Australian Society of Archivists’ conference and you have a choice between attending two parallel sessions:

  1. World War II Photography: A practitioners’ guide to assigning titles
  2. Rethinking the Records Continuum Theory

Sure, your interests will naturally draw you toward one choice. However I fear that for most practitioners, theory and research is too far removed from their day-to-day work. Additionally, practitioners may feel that there is little they can contribute to such a discussion. In my view, this is due to researchers’  lack of engagement with what should be their core audience.

Last year, Monash University  invited all members of the archival community to help ‘rethink’ Frank Upward’s Records Continuum Theory. Of the group of about 30 people, only five weren’t researchers/academics by trade.

The gap between researchers and practitioners is in danger of becoming bigger. According to Sue McKemmish, the profession is becoming a victim of its own success;

As our theorists, teachers and teaching institutions become stronger, we are attracting students of a higher calibre who are more likely to head straight through to PhDs without extensive experience in traditional archival practices.

In order to prevent this emerging trend from impacting upon our profession we need to improve communication, from both sides of the ‘barrier’. Conferences should be a good space for such communication to take place, however I find that the parallel sessions at the Australian Society of Archivists’ conferences has a downside; participants go to the sessions which are most relevant to their careers, therefore possibly reinforcing the gap between practitioners and researchers.

Journals are a delayed, one-way communication following the conclusion of research projects. Collaboration opportunities are limited as researchers move on to new projects and also, audience engagement is not supported by journal platforms. Additionally, journal articles are written with formal, jargon-filled language, rendering the research inaccessible to the average reader. This results in research outputs being communicated from researchers to researchers, with a very limited exposure to the practitioners who could put new theories into practice.

The gap is a by-product of specialisation, which is necessary as we pursue innovative archival theories and methods. However, this post aims to suggest a way in which we can aid ‘cross-pollination’ between the researchers and the practitioners.

The breakdown of this barrier would aid researchers in pursuing initiatives which are in line with industry requirements.

Innovations which are aligned with industry requirements are in the best interest of the practitioners. Researchers and academics have a responsibility to create opportunities for input from the sector, and practitioners have a responsibility to help further research by taking advantage of these opportunities.

It is within this space that social media presents itself as a unique solution. As members of the archival profession, whether you are a researcher or a practitioner, consider engaging with social media. Social media enables the communication of ideas and experiences in accessible informal language and forms.

This capability for engagement would go some way towards breaking down this barrier. The benefits of which would include:

  • Stakeholders providing feedback to researchers which provide unique insights and aligns research outcomes with industry requirements, and
  • Increased  awareness of research projects among new audiences.

Social media provides us with a powerful tool with which to break down the barriers surrounding research processes. Researchers, stop limiting the reach of your own research by sticking to traditional methods of communication. Practitioners, take advantage of every opportunity to provide feedback and input for research projects, this will benefit your own practice in the long run. Both of these steps are necessary for the Australian archival sector to continue innovating archival theory and practice.

Ethical and interpersonal challenges of researching with Aboriginal communities

Last week I attended a lecture by Dr. Brett Baker which was part of the University of Melbourne Office of Research Ethics and Integrity’s seminar series. The title of the lecture was ‘Ethical guidelines for researchers working with Aboriginal communities’ and it reflected upon interpersonal challenges in addition to ethical guidelines related to research within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Being a reflective researcher is particularly crucial when conducting cross-cultural research. This seminar was very illuminating and the presenter acknowledged that conducting research with Indigenous communities takes more care and forethought. It takes conscious effort to build trust and relationships with community, thus this research in considered to be more involved.

Applications for indigenous research projects are subjected to an intense level of scrutiny. All indigenous research projects are considered high risk because Indigenous Australians are arguably the most researched group of people in the world. Some individuals within community deem research to be a continuation of the scrutiny which the government subjected them to for generations.

The Melbourne University ethics committee which considers Aboriginal research proposals is composed of 13-15 people and includes everyone from lawyers to psychologists. The committee also has at least four representatives from community.

Gratuitous concurrence is a well-established issue which, in this context, means that Indigenous people are likely to agree to being involved in a research project without necessarily first considering whether they actually want to take part.  The Ethics committee takes this very seriously and all research projects are assessed according to how beneficial they would be to the Indigenous communities before being approved.

In particular the ethics committee looks for:

  • Established ties with the community (researchers being invited back into communities for subsequent research projects are looked upon favourably),
  • They also look for evidence that the researcher is tying themselves in with existing Indigenous organisations, projects or researchers, as researchers who turn up in a community and introduce themselves are not trusted as readily as someone who is introduced by a trusted organisation or individual,
  • The committee also looks for evidence that the project is collaborative; ideally indigenous people are involved in conducting the research and being compensated if at all possible.

Once your project has ethics approval:

  • Do not just walk into community and start talking to people. Researchers need to contact the relevant Aboriginal Land Council and ask for permission to access the land with a ‘research permit’ as opposed to just a ‘visitor permit’. This basically involves being given verbal consent by someone who has the right to grant you access, but it is very important.
  • Do not just jump straight into questions. Building rapport over a cup of coffee is crucial. Without trust you will not be invited back.
  • Informed consent – if English or literacy is a barrier it is acceptable to record the exchange between you and the participant as evidence of explaining the project and receiving informed consent.
  • Understanding kinship is crucial as it impacts on every aspect of the society.
  • Interpreters are often required in order to manage the risk of misunderstanding participants. Even when the individual speaks English fluently, they are likely to have different nuances.
  • Hearsay can be misconstrued as truth. Don’t use it.
  • Interaction is limited between the sexes, and expect to be directed to speak to the elderly.
  • Learn about the indigenous ‘ways of behaving’. Being polite is very important, and involves things like not singling anyone out for special attention.
  • Often your point of contact is what anthropologists refer to as ‘brokers’ – intermediaries between the two cultures.
  • The indigenous community want to see that the researchers and outside community are interested and respect the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
  • Do not take trust for granted. Consciously continue to cultivate it and always inform the community about the outcomes of the research.
  • Nothing about their culture is impersonal.
  • Respect the community, their kinship ties and culture.

Remember: You have no intrinsic right to research their community and they have an intrinsic right to be left alone. Be appreciative of the opportunity that you are given and reciprocate accordingly.

Within the next year, please keep an eye on this blog if you are interested in Monash University’s ethical guidelines related to research with the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.