Capping Project
Historians' Information Seeking Habits


In an age where knowledge and resources are increasingly becoming digitized, the information seeking behaviors of almost all user groups are undergoing drastic changes. Historians are not an exception to this trend. While historians are often thought of as traditional, conservative and focused on the past, their methods of information gathering have been significantly affected by the emergence of the Digital Age. Historians are principally engaged in finding primary materials: one author claimed that primary materials were the “most important body of materials they drew on in generating and presenting their arguments” (Orbach 35). Archives and repositories generally provide the most effective access to primary sources for historians. While many historians still rely heavily on printed resources (Tibbo 21) and prefer paper copies of their sources, the growing digitization of archival materials and the creation of online finding aids has made a significant impact on the information world of historians. Historians are searching for tools that will allow them to access relevant materials more directly and with greater ease; many face limits involving time and money (Orbach 35) Digitized materials and online finding aids are helping to accomplish this. However, many historians value the time they spend searching for resources in the archives; one historian called his time searching, “the pleasures of research” (Orbach 39). Clearly, reference for historians involves a mixture of traditional and digital tools and resources. Digital reference for historians should not attempt to replace or completely eliminate traditional reference tools including print sources, direct contact with archivists, and sifting through print archival materials. Digital reference should be designed to complement and enhance the methods historians use to find information. Historians are gradually (and in other cases, more rapidly) changing their information seeking behavior due to the rapidly transforming information landscape that has accompanied the onset of digitization and the rise of the Internet. Despite the prospects that digitization offers, many historians remain attached to a number of traditional resources. Those creating digital reference for historians must respect historians’ lingering preference for some traditional resources, while endeavoring to generate resources and tools that will enhance each historian’s search for information.