Historians Today: No need for librarians? Really? [librarianship]

I had a chance to read the Ithaka S+R report “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians.”

I know, it’s near the holidays. I don’t want to think about it either. But this is one of those conversations we probably need to be having, because the report surveyed the very people we are ostensibly serving, and they see no need for our services.

NB: I’m not a historian. My degrees are in English Literature and LIS, with a side helping of the history of the book. So I’m in the land of “allied professionals who work with historians in the context of connecting them with primary materials.”

Kate Theimer has shared her thoughts already. She covered much of my thinking about the recommendations there for archives and archivists. Which is also relevant to those of us on the Special Collections end of things. In this report, historians don’t differentiate between special collections librarians and archivists: to them, we are all just the Keepers of Primary Sources, regardless of training, institutional setting, etc. Give them their primary sources and no one gets hurt.

Here’s the paraphrased gist of what I gleaned from my reading of it yesterday afternoon.

On archivists: “We historians love archivists! They know where all the good caches of primary documents are in their own collections, and it’s been great that they’ve been putting their finding aids and some collections online, which saved my tenure-track bacon when research trip funding got nuked! I just wish there was better support for self-service scanning and one-stop searching for finding aids.”

On Google Books: “This is great! I can keyword search to find ALL THE THINGS and ILL the originals! Everything in the public domain has been digitized, hooray!”

On librarians (which they seem to parse as history subject specialists in particular): “They don’t really understand my research. I’m not sure how helpful they would be to me, because they don’t specialize enough in my narrow subfield. I guess I can have them show the grad students how to muddle through all these databases, but it’s better if they learn on their own, like I had to. ILL is really nice, though. I use that a lot.”

On being a historian: “The hardest part in the age of digitization is keeping track of all of my sources. They keep coming out with tools that work for one kind of thing rather than another, so tracking all of my stuff per project is kind of a pain.”

…does anyone else see a problem with this? particularly for subject specialists? To be blunt, this makes me rather uneasy.

1. It denies the fact that knowledge outside of a particular narrow subfield would be relevant to another subfield. Yet I’ve had dozens of personal (and hence, anedotal) experiences where my knowledge of history and anatomy of the book, say, provided additional relevant information/analysis to historians working on materials created during the hand-press period. Because material culture and history of the book hadn’t been a “proper” subfield when they were beginning research in their own areas. Learning more details about how hand-press era printing and distribution worked changed how they parsed the era they studied.

2. Apparently there is at least a subset of historians that don’t understand that librarians and archivists organize disparate information for a living. And we’re good at it. Perhaps we could help with that whole thing?

3. Not everything in the public domain has been digitized (I got yer 50K dime novels RIGHT HERE. In paper only.)…how can we reframe that message so it’s heard?

4. What I’m hearing here is that history subject specialists are viewed as fairly useless to historians when it comes to their research. Does that frighten anyone else? How do we combat this perception?

…and should we bother?


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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1 Response to Historians Today: No need for librarians? Really? [librarianship]

  1. Pingback: No Library is an Island | Peer to Peer Review

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