Capping Project
Historians' Information Seeking Habits
Traditional Versus Non Traditional Resources


With the emergence of the Internet and new technologies, historians are being forced to adapt to an increasingly digital information landscape. While evidence shows that historians are altering their information seeking behavior to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitization, there are also indications that historians are refusing to completely disengage from traditional tools and resources. The literature supports the notion that historians are presently combining traditional and non-traditional tools and resources. Historians are responding to the new tools and resources produced by digitization. One historian comments: “The recent increase in archival data in digital form…is great. It is also useful to be able to search finding aids ahead of time” (Duff, Craig and Cherry 22). Such statements support the evidence in the literature that historians are becoming adjusted to digital resources.

A study published in 2003 by Helen Tibbo reports that all the historians she interviewed had made use of electronic resources to find primary materials (21). She further notes that two-thirds of the historians had searched the World Wide Web for materials of 63% of those interviewed had accessed an archival or repository website during their research (21). Tibbo’s statistics are evidence that supports the view that historians are aware of digitization and are beginning to access digital tools and resources that are being made available to them. However, Tibbo’s study also provides data that suggests historians are continuing to regularly utilize print and other traditional resources. She cites a 1982 study by Margaret Steig that found that “bibliographies, book reviews, library catalogs, references in journals, specialized bibliographies and abstracts, or indexes” are historians’ most important tool (Tibbo 13). Not surprisingly, historians in the 1980s heavily relied on print resources. However, years later, Tibbo reports, 98% of the historians she interviewed stated that they found materials by “using leads and citations in printed resources” including “bibliographies, printed finding aids, and printed repository guides” (20). Such an overwhelming number of historians suggests that print and traditional resources remain essential for the research purposes of historians.

The lingering importance of print resources is perhaps surprising given the many advantages of digital tools and technologies. Kessner reports that manually searching print indexes is “cumbersome, time consuming and prone to user error and oversight”(35). Such comments can easily be applied to most searches of print resources in archives. “Automated bibliographic retrieval” is, by contrast “fast and extremely efficient” and furthermore, allows historians to “rapidly survey current and retrospective literature” in “specific subject areas” (Kessner 35)

Why are historians clinging to print and traditional resources despite all the advantages of digital technology? Despite all the advances of digitization, historians are comfortable using print resources and highly value them as a resource. Duff, Craig and Cherry comment that “historians will always want and need to have access to original documents” and will prefer a paper copy because its “utility is well understood, its stability has been experienced and it can be used and viewed without the aid of a machine” (72). The reliability and ease of use involved with print resources has essentially ensured that they will continue to be utilized by historians for the foreseeable future. Historians feel secure and at ease using print resources; the possible complications of digital sources are not present in the use of print resources and this will ensure their continued use by historians.

The other main reason involved in historians’ continued use of traditional resources is that the format of many of the digital resources does not fully meet historians’ needs. Orbach reports that “our present reference and access systems do not adequately support current attempts at research use” (29). Tucker, Rosenberg et al concur that digital “bibliographic tools are neither fully understood or utilized” (385). Clearly a gap exists between the user’s needs and the format of digital resources. Duff, Craig and Cherry state that the historians they interviewed would like to have “direct access to digitized historical documents” (71). However, the desire of historians for access to digital documents cannot be fully met by archives and repositories. Anderson notes that “complete digitization is likely impossible”; archives do not have the resources or money to digitize their entire collections (114). Clearly, the desire for direct access to digitized documents cannot be fully accommodated by the archival community.

Another historian demand related by Duff, Craig and Cherry was online finding aids that could be accessed from one’s personal computer. (71) Anderson comments that without more “efficient ways of producing finding aids (or at least more effective ways of searching on-line finding aids) the benefits of digitization will not be realized” (113). The difficulties of accomplishing this are many. Kessner comments that archival collections “do not lend themselves easily to uniform description” and reports on the ongoing efforts of the Society of American Archivists and other organizations to create a” national information network for manuscripts and archives.”(37) Clearly, historians’ expectations and needs are not being fully met by the archival and information community; Duff, Craig and Cherry state that “electronic access and digital reproduction have an as yet untapped potential” (22). Digital resources and tools are being designed, produced and disseminated. Historians are taking advantage of a number of them, including archival and repository web pages and bibliographic databases. But their information needs are not being fully met by those resources. Historians would like access to digitized historical documents; archives cannot undertake the expense of fully digitizing their collection. Historians would like effective online finding aids; because of the intricacies and complexities of indexing their collections, archives and repositories as yet are not able to provide online finding aids that meet the needs of historians.

Because of the gap between historians’ information needs and the capabilities of digital resources, historians are not willing or able to make full use of digital resources or abandon the use of traditional and print resources. There is an effective stalemate; digitization and digital tools do not fully meet the needs of historians. So, historians choose the best of both worlds; they make use of digital resources when it suits them, but they also still rely on the print resources that still fully meet their needs. Historians’ information patterns involve the use of print and electronic resources.