November 27, 2015

NY Times: “New Research Tools Kick Up Dust in Archives”

From The NY Times:

In just a few years, advances in technology have transformed the methods of historians and other archival researchers. Productivity has improved dramatically, costs have dropped and a world distinguished by solo practitioners has become collaborative. In response, developers are producing an array of computerized methods of analysis, creating a new quantitative science.

However, the transformation has also disrupted many of the world’s historical archives, long known as sleepy places distinguished by vast and often musty collections of documents that only rarely saw the light of day. It has also created new challenges for protecting intellectual property and threatened revenue streams from document copying, creating financial challenges for some institutions.

“It gives me a bit of a chill,” said Henry Lowood, curator for History of Science and Technology Collections and Film and Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries. “It’s not so much that we try to control things, it’s that we have agreements with people who give us their papers, and in order for us to monitor those agreements we need to monitor things at some level.”


But for all its academic potential and efficiency benefits, some see the opening of the world’s archives as a mixed blessing. Archivists who are in charge of caring for documents that have in the past been looked at rarely, and by a relative handful of historians, worry about damage to bindings from careless researchers who flatten books to obtain better images. They also worry about the loss of control, which in some cases can lead to violations of agreements that the archives have with donors of historical materials.

Libraries have also had to adapt their policies to the new copying technology, something with which they are just now coming to terms, said Dr. [Henry] Lowood Lowood, [curator for History of Science and Technology Collections and Film and Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries]. For example, initially Stanford’s archives charged people when they used their own equipment to copy material, but a year ago the practice was halted. That has eliminated a source of revenue, and prompted new guidelines: Now researchers are permitted to bring their own gear to copy documents. They are, however, required to show that they can use the equipment correctly.

Read the Complete Article

See Also:  New Report from ITHAKA S+R: Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians (December 10, 2013)

Gary Price About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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