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.



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


ASA Conference: Volunteer Work and Entering the Profession from the Periphery

ASA Conference Panel

The theme of the Australian Society of Archivists‘ 2015 conference was ‘Archives on the Edge’. Speakers spoke on a variety of topics derived from this theme: archives on the edge of extinction, the edge of great innovation, the edge of redefinition.

The Panel

My colleagues and I chose to flip the term on its’ head and presented a panel on the role and impact of volunteers within the archival profession, and the challenges involved with entering the archival profession from the periphery – its’ edges, if you will. As new professionals, Christopher Stueven, Christine Holmes, Romney Adams and myself discussed the experiences of volunteers within the Australian archival profession. The four of us had had extensive volunteering experience whilst undertaking studies in wildly varied organisations and different motivations.

The relevance of the topic and the issues presented with our profession’s reliance upon volunteers was made evident by the amount of participants who attended the session. The discussions within the room were wide-ranging and touched on a number of issues. It would be impossible to capture the discussion here and give credit to everyone for their individual contributions; I by no means aim to represent these opinions wholly as my own. This post will briefly highlight the issues that seemed to be of particular relevance to the Australian archival sector, before touching on the potential research project and best practice document that have come about as a direct result of this panel.

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As a whole, the room acknowledge that in most cases volunteering represents a mutually beneficial and welcome exchange of free labor for occupational experience. All of the panel members stressed that their volunteering experiences had been invaluable in gaining the skills required in order to obtain employment within the sector.

Given the immensely positive impact that archival institutions could have upon volunteers and vice versa, it is disappointing how little information and research the panelists were able to find which illuminated the Australian context. Each of the panelists remarked upon the lack of research which identify the motivations of volunteers in the Australian archival sector, and as a profession we have little to no idea how many volunteers we have nor where they are. Without proper planning and a clearer idea of the people who volunteer in our sector, archives run the risk of wasting the time and resources of both the volunteer and the archive (Frevert, 1997).

We are a relatively small, young and unknown profession, we must therefore take good care of the volunteers that we do manage to attract (Leonard, 2012). Volunteers reinforce the ties between an archive and its’ public, and each volunteer represents an opportunity for the relationships between archives and their communities to be strengthened. Once we acknowledge the unique opportunities that volunteers represent, it is only logical that our profession invest time and resources in order to leverage these opportunities to our greatest benefit. Of course, just as a positive experience can lead to our volunteers becoming our public relations advocates, a negative experience can lead to critics within the communities which we serve. It is absolutely crucial therefore that volunteer programs be implemented strategically.Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 7.03.39 PM

Main Issues Discussed

  • Christopher Stueven stated that in his opinion Australia was behind in having these conversations, given that countries such as America and England have published great swathes of data, best practices and policies with regards to their volunteers, volunteering programs and volunteering initiatives. Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 6.57.22 PMThis is perhaps unsurprising given that the Global Financial Crisis impacted the Australian economy less severely than that of both England and America, and therefore have not had to have the same level of reliance upon volunteers.
  • The room agreed that the Australian Society of Archivists and the archival community as a whole would benefit from a statement of ‘best practice’. A senior member of council who was in attendance suggested that the panel members draft such a document for the consideration of the council.

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  • In line with current literature, participants agreed that volunteers should never replace paid positions and should not do core business as this would weaken the position of the archive and potentially the profession as a whole. For many who have seen the profession of Archives elevated from being a Librarian in the 1960s, to becoming its own sector, de-professionalisation is something to constantly be guarding against.
  • As Leonard (2012, p. 313) states: “The labor of a volunteer employee is not—nor should it necessarily be—without cost to the employing institution.” In fact, a number of participants in the session stated that at times volunteers demand more time and resources than they contribute, but that the intangible benefits of having volunteers (fresh insights, enthusiasm, connection to community, etc.) made this worthwhile.Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 7.04.16 PM
  • Romney Adams stated that there should be one point of contact for volunteers, and that this staff member should be selected based upon their interest in cultivating a rewarding experience for the volunteers.
  • Given that archives in Australia have recently published a huge volume of archival material for the centenary of World War One, I stressed the importance of some sort of support system, even if a staff member just allows the volunteers to debrief over a plate of cookies in the tea room.
  • Volunteer programs should be implemented strategically, i.e. as a means of demonstrating the value added by a particular service or product, in order to obtain the funding required for the position(s) to be paid – and maybe even result in a job for the volunteer.
  • A source of frustration according to the majority of those in the room was the lack of a central point at which potential volunteers could register their interest in volunteering at archival institutions. It was suggested that such a portal would be invaluable, especially if volunteers could create a little profile stating what type of experience they were looking for, and alternatively archives could advertise for volunteers to help with specific projects or initiatives.

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The Outcome

Researching and presenting on this panel made it increasingly clear that further research into the volunteers in the Australian archival and recordkeeping sector should be conducted. Currently efforts are being made to review relevant literature and draft a statement of best practice for the consideration of the Australian Society of Archivists. We are also in the process of compiling a list of questions to be included in a survey which is to distributed to, and completed by, as many volunteers within the archival sector as possible. If anyone would like to make any suggestions of what to include in the survey, please feel free to contact me through the feedback form included below. The survey will be based upon similar resources that have previously been developed, and members of the Australian Society of Archivists will be invited to contribute feedback and further suggestions through the ArchivesLive website.

While these informal conversations have been occurring for some time, we are thrilled to see them becoming more formal.

*A kind thank you to Sigrid McCausland for being an exemplary moderator, and to Chris Stueven for providing feedback on this post.


Leonard, K. B. (2012). Volunteers in Archives: Free Labor, But Not Without Cost. Journal of Library Administration, 52(3-4), 313-320.

Frevert, R. H. (1997). Archives volunteers: Worth the effort?. Archival Issues, 147-162.