ICHORA 2020, DAY 4: Donald Force, “Digital Archival Collections: Understanding their Use by Academic Historians”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Expanding Notions of Users and Use.”

Donald Force (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) explores the use of digital archival collections by historians in “Digital Archival Collections: Understanding their Use by Academic Historians.” While highlighting the ubiquitous nature of digital collections and their importance to scholarly historical writing, Force investigates perceptions historians have of these online materials and the digital interfaces where they obtain access to them. Acknowledging previous studies by Chassanoff (2013), as well as Sinn and Soares (2014), Force’s quantitative study aims to focus on the more recent years to update and expand the data. [1] Specifically, Force explores whether historians used or cited digital collections and the impressions that historians had of them. 

On August 11, 2020, Force’s research team sent out online surveys to 4,104 faculty historians from 126 R1 universities in the United States, giving participants four weeks to complete the survey. Force explains that this group was selected as they would be most likely to have included digital archival materials in their research and would also have had experience in working with physical collections and thus would have opinions on the differences between the two formats. In creating the survey, the term “digital archival collection” was specifically used to define digital collections that may contain born-digital and/or digitized works. 

Force 1 (1)

The project’s questionnaire was originally sent to the members of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee History department. Their answers helped Force to redefine specific questions for the survey.  They received 635 completed surveys, which represented 15% of the targeted group. Associate and full professors constituted the majority of respondents. However, Force discusses responses from assistant professors as well. The age range of the respondents that identified themselves as full, associate, and assistant professors was 73% over 45 years of age. 

While over 97% of the participants responded that they had used digital collections, only 88% said that they had cited them. By comparison, 95% responded that they had cited a physical archival collection. Force explains the finding that junior faculty seem to be utilizing physical collections more frequently than their senior faculty colleagues. About 78% of respondents said that their use of digital archival collections has increased in the last five years (even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 turned historical researchers towards the digital). In specifying reasons why use of digital collections has increased, 65% of participants said that the availability of these collections contributed to their use. 

Other survey questions regarding the validity of digital objects found that the majority of participants trusted digital objects the same as physical. However, when asked if they needed to see the actual object before citing it, the majority of respondents said no (43%), or said that it depended on the object (53%). Participants answered they wanted to see the original object in order to better understand the context, about which felt strongly. A major limitation of digital collections, apparently, surrounds the knowledge whether part of a collection is missing or has not been scanned. 

Force 3 (1)

Force explains that they plan to conduct further research into the topic, especially since over 300 of their participants expressed that they would be interested in follow-up discussions. Looking more closely at the digital archival collections which researchers rely on the most, surveying R2 university faculty, and exploring the perceptions of archivists are all possible future expansions of Force’s work. Generational factors within the data may also be worth investigating. 


[1] Alexandra Chassanoff, “Historians and the Use of Primary Source Materials in the Digital Age,” The American Archivist 76:2 (September 2013): 458-480; Donghee Sinn and Nicholas Soares, “Historians’ Use of Digital Archival Collections: The Web, Historical Scholarship, and Archival Research,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 65:9 (September 2014): 1794-1809.



Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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