Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Out of sight, out of mind? Non-user understandings of archives in Aotearoa New Zealand


Here is my research paper on non-user understandings of archives, submitted to the School of Information Management, Victoria University of Wellington in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Information Studies (February 2014). Enjoy!

Download the paper:
Research problem: Despite a significant amount of research on archival users, only a small number of studies have focused solely on the non-user. This study investigated non-user understandings of archives in Aotearoa New Zealand to learn about their awareness of archives, perceptions of accessibility and use, and views on an archives’ purpose and societal role. This included whether non-users valued archives and what this said about the democratic archival contract.

Methodology: A qualitative research design influenced by critical theory was employed. Eight non-user samples of individuals over the age of 18 were purposively selected within the population of Aotearoa New Zealand, covering variables of geographical location, socio-economic status, education, gender, age, and ethnicity. Three activist samples were also included. Data were collected by semi-structured interviews and analysed thematically.

Results: While their image of an archive was generally accurate and positive, participants had little knowledge of how they were organised. Archives were highly valued and viewed as accessible places for those who needed it, but with clear differences to other institutions. These differences prevented half of the sample with a need to use an archive from doing so. The archival contract was generally accepted, but was problematized in terms of access and cultural bias.

Implications: The findings support the view that understandings of archives greatly influence use. Although limited to a small and geographically specific sample, this study enables archives to know more about potential users, and design, target and implement outreach in order to raise awareness and increase use.

Keywords: Archives - Non-users - User Studies - Outreach - Awareness - Power

User studies in archival research have become a major topic over the last six decades (Chowdhury & Chowdhury, 2011, p.25). Despite one definition of user studies as ‘investigations of the use and users (including non-users and potential users and users) of documents, information, communication channels, information systems and information services’ (Hjorland, 2000), only a small number of studies have focused solely on the non-user. As a result, there is a distinct lack of information and research-based studies on archival non-users, including in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is simply not known how non-users perceive the accessibility and purpose of the country’s numerous archives.

The same can be said of the relationship between non-use and the often-cited societal outcomes of formal archives. How effective are objectives such as ‘efficient and effective government’, ‘trusted and accountable government’, and ‘nationhood and social cohesion’ (Archives New Zealand, 2010) if the archive is not used, or even valued? Such questions also problematise the democratic archival contract: the assumed ‘agreement between archivists and society’ (Hamilton, Harris & Reid, 2002, p.16). Is this agreement reciprocal?

‘If we accept the premise that archives play a public role in modern society,’ note Blais & Enns, ‘we must consider the perceptions people have of archives’ (1990, p.104). This study focuses on the non-user of archives in Aotearoa New Zealand, in order to contribute to the present knowledge gap around archival non-users and their understandings of archives.

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