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.

researchmethods

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.

 

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 annelie.de@unimelb.edu.au

Our thanks in advance!

Annelie, Chris and Nicola

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

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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.

When optimism and positivity is misconstrued as naivety

Wednesday night we attended the State Library of Victoria’s 2015 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial lecture which was presented by feminist historian Dr. Clare Wright. During the lecture Clare reflected upon the 40 years since the publication of Anne Summers’ seminal text Damned Whores and God’s Police.

For me, the overall message of the lecture was one of celebration. Clare did make it clear that the journey is one of constant change, and the journey is by no means finished. However, I did appreciate that she focused upon the change brought about by the common woman’s strength, ingenuity and resilience.

I was surprised by the questions at the end, which attempted to draw Clare into a discussion about the concerns surrounding neo-liberal feminism. I get the impression that some attendees were looking for a roadmap of continued resistance in order to further the feminist cause as opposed to the reflection which the lecture was supposed to be. Some seemed frustrated by Clare’s unwillingness to be drawn into a finger-pointing exercise in relation to the unforeseen implications of the feminist movement.

For me, this was yet another instance of positivity being misconstrued as naivety. I have been warned many times against being too optimistic, as people would take me less seriously. I am forever battling against this assumption that those who are realistic (even cynical and pessimistic) are more intelligent.

Some attendees at Clare’s lecture might have found her presentation to be of more merit if she were to rail against the prevailing injustices against the female population. Personally however, I find no point whatsoever in beating our heads against walls and moaning about those who have taken feminism in a direction which we may not agree with.

Rather, let’s celebrate our past accomplishments and those common people who led a silent revolution and had an uncommon affect on history. In so doing, we bring back into focus the original spirit of feminism and spread an infectious joy in playing a small part in enacting change.

I guess what I am asking is this: If we had one room filled with optimists and another filled with pessimists, which would be the more likely to make a positive change in this world? I would say that the answer is bleeding obvious. But then again, I’ve been called ‘naïve’.

From the collection of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

From the collection of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library

Digital Life Story Work with Aboriginal Children in Out-of-Home Care

I was asked to prepare a video presentation of my research for the Masters of Education students of Australian Catholic University. A transcript of the presentation is included below with links to useful resources for those who are interested.

Hi everyone, my name is Annelie and I am currently completing my Master’s thesis at Monash University. As recordkeepers and archivists we are trained to have a unique understanding of the power of records within the lives of individuals and within wider society.

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Personal records can be anything which is created through your daily activities or interactions. These records don’t necessarily have meaning or value on their own, but the value and meaning that we ascribe to these records is what makes them important to the individual. There is a strong relationship between the individual and their records, as the records act as an affirmation of an individual’s account of their life, their personal narrative.

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Personal records are created through an individual’s interactions with their environment and connections with other people. When a child is put in care, their relationships with others and their environment becomes fragmented. This results in a fragmentation of their personal narrative. Care leavers commonly report a sense of not knowing who they are. In these circumstances, the personal records of the child have an even more powerful and important role to play in their identity formation.

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Unfortunately however, these children are less likely to have the types of personal records the rest of us take for granted. They are less likely to have a scrapbook made of their early years and the situation with regards to personal records gets worse once the child enters care.

A succession of Government enquiries have consistently revealed the negative impact of poor recordkeeping and archival practices in our care systems on the already fraught nature of fractured narratives of self for the children in out-of-home care.

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The records which are created through a child’s time in care are case files which are created solely for administrative purposes. These files were not created with the understanding that the children might see what was written about them later on in life, or that the records would play a fundamental role in ensuring those who hurt the vulnerable children in their care were brought to justice.

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Two academics, Jacqueline Z. Wilson and Frank Golding – who happen to be care leavers themselves – recently published an incredible paper exposing the types of mistakes and biases that were included in the case files by publishing excerpts from their own files. They explain the dual affect of the case file, on the one hand validating what the care leaver remembers of their past, and on the other hand causing distress when the official account differs from personal recollections.

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The archival community has been involved in a number of initiatives attempting to address the re-traumatization of care leavers when they do access their case files later in life, whilst also ensuring that current recordkeeping practices by care providers are improved.

The Who Am I? project resulted in the Find and Connect website which aims to connect care leavers with the records which help to make sense of their past. The hope amongst care leavers accessing their records is to make sense of their experiences; why they were put into care, where they were at what time (in some cases children went through eleven foster homes in one year), etc.

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Up to now, the archival community has been instrumental in trying to retrospectively alleviate some of the symptoms of decades of poor recordkeeping and archival practices in the care sector. They have also been involved in a number of research projects which highlight the need for current practices to change, for carers to create records with instead of about the child.

My Research

In contrast, my research project will focus on a way in which the child can create their own narrative with or without their carers through the use of a digital life story work application. Providing children in out-of-home care with the means to take ownership over their own narratives seems to me a fundamental right. The social work system is one in crisis, meaning that the current Life Story Work practices are impractical in their reliance on carers with the time and inclination to support the children through the sense-making process.

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Life Story Work is a sense-making practice employed by the Social Work discipline, and was established by Ryan and Walker in 1985. It is designed to create opportunities for meaningful conversations with the child/youth to help them make sense of their fractured environments and relationships and to create a continuous narrative of self.

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The reason I have chosen to focus upon the design of a digital life story work application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youths in particular is threefold:

  • The NSW Department of Family and Community Service’s ‘My Life Story Book – the Aboriginal version’ appears to preference Western ways of communication and Western ideas of family and community.
  • Adolescents typically are unwilling to ‘engage with traditional life story work resources, frequently citing them as being “for kids”‘ (Hammond, 2013, p. 1). The current life story work resource was developed by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services in 2005 (in the pre-Web 2.0 world), and very much appears to have been created with young children in mind.
  • Other current life story work and digital storytelling initiatives are being developed without appearing to consider recordkeeping and archiving principles, which is particularly concerning when one considers the vulnerable nature of these children and the crucial role which personal records and personal narratives play in their ongoing identity formation. Recordkeeping and archival practices would help to ensure that these records continue to be accessible to the individuals throughout their lives.

The urgent need for improvements in this area becomes apparent when one considers that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their families has increased by 65% since the Federal Government apologized to the Stolen Generations in 2008. Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than children of other races.

According to The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services, Indigenous children make up 35% of all children in care, despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children only make up 4.4 percent of the population.

Photo taken of a protest march in 2014. Original image on stopstolengenerations.com.au

Photo taken of a protest march in 2014. Original image on stopstolengenerations.com.au

Whilst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle aims to help ensure that Indigenous children removed from their families still remain within their mob, this is only actually done in 37.5% of cases. Critics call this the ‘Second Stolen Generation’.

My research aims to develop a set of principles and requirements for a digital life story work application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. It is expected that at least one of the requirements will stress the need for the children to be educated about the communities from which they have most likely been removed. This can done with Web 2.0 technologies which would connect the child to their kin through interactive capabilities and communication platforms.

The existing ‘My Life Story Book – the Aboriginal version’ is not customizable, and there is just the one resource for every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child, regardless of language or mob. Many children identify with several mobs, and a digital application would ensure the flexibility required to customize it’s information according to the child’s age, sex and mob(s).

An additional benefit of encouraging Indigenous youth to actively create and engage with technology is to address the digital participation gap. A fundamental flaw in the current government initiatives to ‘bridge the gap’ is that the aim is to bring the levels of Indigenous literacy up to the lowest of the rest of the populations’ literacy levels. Surely that aim is unworthy of our Indigenous community?

It is likely that you will encounter many children in out-of-home care in your classrooms through the course of your career, however any child would benefit from Life Story Work for the creation of personal records and a continuous personal narrative. As teachers, you have a unique opportunity to help address the identity issues which children from fractured backgrounds commonly experience.

Useful Life Story Work References and Guides:

Hammond, S., & Cooper, N. (2013). Digital life story work: Using technology to help young people make sense of their experiences (No. 1). British Association of Adoption and Fostering.

Rose, R. (2012). Life story therapy with traumatized children: A model for practice. Jessica kingsley publishers.

Respecting cultural differences vs ‘othering’

As researchers in the interpretivist paradigm we are expected to grapple and come to some sort of understanding of our participants’ worldview. This strikes me as an impossible task. When asked, my supervisors assured me that it is in fact impossible, but as long as we accept that we have tried our best and engage in reflective practice that our research will be robust. I find it difficult to come to terms with these concepts especially since my research focuses on Aboriginal culture. I feel as though it would be the height of stupidity to pretend to have even a basic understanding of their worldview. Although my professors raised the point that perhaps I am actually doing the Aboriginal community a disservice by assuming that we have vastly different worldviews. How do I navigate the line between ‘othering’ the Indigenous community and respecting the fact that cultural differences exist?

Introspection by Giulia Marangoni

Introspection by Giulia Marangoni