Primary Source Digital Archives Use and Promotion Uncovered

February 5, 2019 Katy Sforza

Primary source digital archives are fundamentally changing traditional research, bringing new insight into the backstories behind the theories; and the thought process leading to the final analyses. But, who is really using these primary source materials? How do researchers, students and faculty learn about the availability of new digital archives—and how to effectively navigate their content? And what role do librarians play in driving adoption?

We went directly to the sources to find out.

In August of 2018, the Wiley Digital Archives team conducted an in-depth survey that included 1,496 researchers, students, and faculty members, as well as 272 librarians worldwide. All had either used or purchased primary sources in the past. 

Here’s a high-level recap of what we learned from their responses. 

Who Uses Primary Source Digital Archives?

Although some believe that archives are only valuable to researchers specializing in humanities or social sciences, nothing could be further from the truth. The archive users we surveyed pursued areas of study that were almost equally dispersed among health sciences, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences/humanities. That user diversity is reflective of the larger community now utilizing these archives.

As more of these resources are constructed with a multi-disciplinary focus, the more interest they’re generating across a wider berth of students, researchers and faculty. So, a single archive could have a profound impact on an institution’s entire research community, each approaching the content from their own, unique perspective.

How Do Users Find These Archives?

Although 31 percent of the librarians surveyed offer on-demand, ad-hoc services for primary sources, or will orchestrate time-consuming inter-library loans when these sources aren’t available, users, for the most part, aren’t taking advantage of these services. While they aren’t shy about recommending specific archive purchases to librarians, when they start searching for available materials, their approach is largely self-service. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, they consult friends and colleagues. 

In our survey, 21 percent of users sought out digital archives through Google searches; 14 percent through lead follow up and 13 percent by consulting the online library catalog. With only a fraction of the research population contacting their librarians for help, librarians might not realize the extent to which primary source materials are needed in specific areas.  Just as important, researchers may not be taking full advantage of the resources the library already has.

How Do Users Find Out about New Primary Sources?

Sixty-five percent of the librarians surveyed purchased primary sources within the past two years, signifying the fact that the purchase of digital, as well as print resources, has become a mainstream practice.

Although the majority of the librarians we surveyed sent out emails when a new journal or archive is added to existing resources, the Wiley survey indicates that, although faculty members read email, the majority of undergraduate and graduate students do not. As a result, they could miss out on accessing the vital content they need.  

To ensure these students stay informed, some librarians are placing banners on library web sites or even engaging social media to get the word out.  Because the foundation of social media is sharing information, this is an excellent vehicle for quickly increasing awareness of new resources among the research community. 

What Role Do Librarians Play in Archive Adoption?

The survey results also underscored the critical role that librarians play in archive use and adoption—both outside and inside the classroom. 

For example, the overwhelming majority of users cited accessing primary source materials as their biggest challenge, with analyzing and interpreting these sources as a close second. Those results illustrate the fact that, although researchers and students recognize the need for digital archives, they’re also looking for help on how to effectively use them. 

While the need for help varies by individual and the complexity of the research project, the role of the librarian is mission-critical to maximizing the value of these resources.

The same is true when it comes to increasing the formal use of primary source materials in the classroom. 

The survey indicated that, although faculty members encourage their students to use primary source materials, few formally make it part of their courses’ learning objectives. 

Librarians have a real opportunity to offer workshops, blogs, and instructional sessions to help researchers navigate and effectively use archived content. By proactively reaching out to faculty members, librarians can also help them formally incorporate primary source research into their course work—and even provide in-class events on how to use digital archives for specific projects.

All these efforts increase adoption, but, more importantly, expose researchers and students to a world of possibilities and perspectives they may never otherwise experience.

These are just a few of the insights gleaned from our recent survey. For more detailed information on the survey, you can download a free digital archives whitepaper, based on survey findings.  

About the Author

Katy Sforza

Marketing Manager, Wiley //

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