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Historians' Information Seeking Habits

Historians’ information searching behavior mixes intuition and systematic searching. The literature on the information seeking patterns of historians appears to support the notion that the research process for historians often begins in an informal manner and does not follow a distinct pattern. Duff and Johnson note that historians are “vague about their information needs and research methods” and the “discovery of relevant materials” is often “accidental” (494). Clearly, the beginning of the research process often involves more intuition than carefully laid out strategies on the part of the historian. Case comments that the notion that historians employ concrete “stages of research” is “illusory” and further states: …choosing and refining topics, planning and constructing studies, gathering and interpreting evidence, and writing and revising manuscripts can go on concurrently bothwithin and across individual projects (78). The literature seems to sustain the notion that historians do not rely on a linear research process. The reason for this appears to be that they are focused on the materials themselves; Orbach suggests that historians are: …wrapped up in content, in the materials themselves, and what they offer to the researchers’ argument, sometimes to the exclusion of conscious consideration of strategies for finding and assimilating materials (32).

Many sources in the literature seem to suggest that historians are more involved with the arguments they are trying to make and the relation of the sources to those arguments, rather than planned tactics for finding the sources themselves. While the initial stages of research tend to be hazy and intuitive, Duff and Johnson suggest that there is purpose to much of what historians accomplish in archives and repositories. From interviews with ten historians, Duff and Johnson extracted four “information seeking activities” carried out by historians in archives: “becoming oriented to a new archive or collection”, “searching for known material”, “building contextual knowledge”, and “identifying relevant material” (492). While the authors admit that these activities occur in “no particular order”, they do contend that historians use contextual knowledge especially to adjust the focus of their questions and “find and interpret relevant material” (492, 494). Duff and Johnson’s statements support the argument that, while historians are often vague and intuitive in the beginning of their research, this is only to allow them to gain more knowledge and background about their research question.

Once they have the contextual knowledge they need, historians are able to become more focused and purposeful in their search for sources. It also appears that the research process is easier to begin than to end. Case comments that historians often select their topics based on previous interests, graduate research or “interpersonal contacts.” He notes that many historians emphasized the role their colleagues played “in the formulation of research questions” (78, 79). Orbach notes that secondary sources are used to “stimulate ideas” while the selection of topics usually precedes the search for primary resources; the discovery of primary materials “solidifies” historians’ “commitment” to their topic (33). Clearly, research often begins as an impulse to discover more information on a research area that is familiar to the historian or has been suggested to them by a colleague. The process begins as a hazy desire to further investigate a question and often precedes the discovery of primary sources relating to the topic. Ending the research process is less driven by a sense of accomplishment than by the constraints of time and money. Orbach notes that the historians she interviewed claimed knowing when to end the search for resources was the most difficult part of research process (34). The interviews also identified “deadlines, the intended audience, the discovery of contrary evidence, and the exhaustion of the sources or the researcher” as determinants in terminating the research problem. Being aware of the end format of their research, whether a book or an article, also determined how much information historians collected. (Orbach 34 ).

The literature promotes the idea of a research process that begins with an impulse to further investigate a research question and ends because of the limits of time, money and considerations about the final format of the research. Historians’ information patterns combine instinct and intuition, a process of gradually accumulating contextual information that influences the direction of the research, and dealing with the limits of time and money.