Archival Community, Research

How Archival Practitioners can do Research

Broadly speaking, research is a “goal-directed problem-solving activity” (Bruce Archer, 1965).

When I first read this definition I thought “well hell, that means every person is engaging in research everyday”. The main difference between a practitioner and a researcher appeared to be that one did research in an informal way and the other formalised it in order to do rigorous and systematic research.

This blog post acknowledges that most practitioners do research as part of their everyday practice and looks at how can it be turned into Research.

The distinctions between research and Research:

  1. research is context-specific whereas Research contributes to the broader body of knowledge and learnings can be applied to other contexts.
  2. research processes are determined by the individual, whereas Research processes have to conform to methodologies as defined by scholarship.

Therefore, if we keep the distinctions above in mind, we can look at how practitioner research can be turned into Research.

Why would you want to do this?

Learning about Research is incredibly empowering. It was like learning a new language and suddenly having access to another culture.

Even if you don’t want to do Research yourself, you can have access the thinking of academics and engage in those conversations. I know several incredible archival thinkers who don’t feel the need to contribute to the literature, but are able to engage in those conversations, and ultimately influence what is written in the literature.

This is all a necessary part of bridging that growing gap between practitioners and researchers within the archival field.

If however you do want to create Research and ultimately, be published and contribute to the overall body of knowledge, it does open up another aspect and/or level of employment which might otherwise have been closed to you.

So how can an archival practitioner do Research?

Essential Step 1: Accept the challenge

Realise that you’ve been doing research all along – and all you need to do is start thinking about how you can take your context-specific research and turn it into Research which can contribute to the work and thinking of others.

Essential Step 2: Locate yourself

A lot of people say “Oh I wouldn’t know what to write about!”

Ask yourself; what makes you curious while you are at work, or at a conference or in a meeting. Being curious is a must. It will be hard to motivate yourself to produce Research without being curious about your findings. For example, you may be curious about the best way to engage with the general public, or it may be the process of deaccessioning.

After you decide on your research topic, you start to read. Because if you are wanting to contribute to the work and thinking of others, you first need to know what’s already out there. The secret? Most good papers help you out by outlining the limitations of their study and recommending future possible research directions.

Find the ‘gap’ and figure out what question you need to ask in order to address that gap. 

Essential Step 3: Design

Designing a Research project is my favourite part. There’s all kinds of things that you need to take into consideration at this point in order to ensure a quality study.

For example: In order to publish peer-reviewed articles, you need to demonstrate the use of methodologies in your study.

I think of methodologies as ‘choose your own adventure’ books. You need to design something that fits your research question, as choosing the wrong methodology may lead you into a dead end.

Note: Depending upon what you read, their definitions of paradigms, methodologies, and methods change. The secret? People use different language to refer to the same thing, all the time. 

Essential Step 4: Locate Findings

Remember all the reading you did in order to determine your research question? Well that stage forms the basis of your literature review.

By comparing the findings of your study with the literature you found, you are locating your findings within the existing literature. By analysing the differences and coming to conclusions, you are adding to the existing literature on your chosen topic. Remember: you don’t need to make some amazing discovery in order to contribute to knowledge. 


If you are curious to learn more, have a read of Debunking Archival Research Myths or Behind the Scenes: Writing a Research Article and ask yourself:

What is the research that only you can do?



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