For my Qualitative Research Methods class this week I was asked to find a research article in my field of interest that uses focus groups, and to write up a short summary of the article and critique their use of focus groups as a research method.

After what seemed like a bit too much searching around in Google Scholar I eventually ran across an article written by Jon Newman of Lambeth Archive in 2012 about the experiences that a group of archives in the South East of England had with participatory cataloging of their collections (Newman, 2012). The archives Newman discusses were all participants in the Mandeville Legacy Project who were attempting to provide better access to their archival collections related to the topic of disabilities and rehabilitation. They chose to use a technique pioneered in the museum community called Revisiting Collections which was adapted specifically for the archives as Revisiting Archive Collections or RAC.

RAC is a technique that was designed by the Collections Trust in the UK to try to make archival descriptions more inclusive, accurate and complete by including the contributions of individuals outside of the archival profession. In the words of the RAC Toolkit:

A key strength of Revisiting Collections is that it provides a framework for embedding new understanding and perspectives on objects and records directly within the museum or archive’s collection knowledge management system, ensuring that it forms part of the story about the collections that is recorded and made accessible to all.

RAC’s framework includes community based focus groups which bring individuals into contact with archival materials and elicit knowledge sharing as well as new narrative and documentation. RAC is similar in spirit to other methods for achieving [participatory archives], but is different because it uses actual focus groups rather than a Web based crowd sourcing approach. The framework includes detailed instructions for running a RAC focus group including:

  • how to select participants
  • how to select materials
  • consent
  • prompt questions
  • data collection
  • attribution
  • room setup
  • starting/ending the session
  • follow up after the session

The essential idea is that people who have direct experience of the subject material have much to offer in the description of the records. Newman connects RAC’s theoretical stance of involving more voices in the production of archives with the work of Terry Cook, Tom Nesmith, Verne Harris, Wendy Duff and Eric Ketelaar. This constellation of archival theory has been actively dismantling the Jenkinsonian notion of the archivist as a neutral, informed, anonymous and monolithic voice. It is not simply a stylistic choice, but a foundational point about recognizing the archivist’s and archive’s role in shaping the historical record. RAC is an example of connecting this theory to actual practice.

So Newman isn’t using focus groups as a research method in this study, but is instead reflecting on the use of focus groups as a technique for generating more complete and useful archival descriptions. To do this he provides case studies that reflect the implementation of RAC in 5 county records offices.

He found that in all these cases work still needed to be done to integrate the results of the focus group sessions into the archival descriptions themselves. Part of the problem lay in how well the archival standards and systems accommodate this new type of community or user centered information. Museums in the UK (at least in 2012) have a SPECTRUM which is a standard that includes guidance for adding user generated information, and the standard is implemented in museum collection management systems. Newman found that guidance on how RAC fit with archival description ISAD(G) systems was not enough to get the newly acquired information into archival systems.

However Newman also found that the focus group sessions generated powerful, revealing and creative descriptions of the records which were highly valuable. The interactions between the archive and the external partners led to increased levels of engagement and trust that was deemed extremely useful by both parties. Using visual material from the archives was as an effective way to generate discussion in the focus groups.

Newman noted that some archivists had uncertainty about how to add the emotive content of these contributions to the archival description. To my eye this seemed like perhaps some were still clinging to the notion that archival descriptions were unbiased and neutral. Indeed, I noticed that the RAC guidelines themselves recommended only adding acquired content if it was deemed neutral:

Information that is destined for the ISAD(G) catalogue may be used verbatim if you consider it to be neutral, factual and verifiable. It is more likely, however, to be a trigger for the archivist to revisit the catalogue, investigate or authenticate the new information that has been has been offered and rework the existing description. (p. 24)

Of course revisiting the catalog to revise is a bit of a luxury, especially when many archives have large backlogs of records that lack any description at all.

The RAC guidelines also require attribution when adding to the official archival description. This in turn requires obtaining consent from the focus group participants. But Newman observed that there was occasionally some uncertainty about how this consent and attribution worked in situations like students names where privacy came into play.

A big part of the work of conducting the focus groups is in the data analysis afterwards. RAC provides guidance on how to mark up the focus group transcripts using 5 categories:

  • ISAD(G) catalog
  • keywords
  • subject guide
  • free text

As any researcher will tell you this markup process in itself can be highly time consuming. I think it would’ve benefited Newman’s article to examine how participating archives were able to perform this step: how much they did it, and what categories of information were most acquired. Some basic statistics such as the number of focus groups conducted by institution, the number, ages, backgrounds of participants, and time spent may have been difficult to acquire but would’ve helped get more of a sense of the scope of the work. In addition it would’ve been interesting to learn more about how focus group participants were selected.

Despite these shortcomings I enjoyed Newman’s analysis, and am sympathetic to the theoretical goals of the RAC project. It is a useful example of putting post-Foucauldian critiques of the archive into practice, without waving the crowdsourcing magic wand. I think a useful extension of this work would be to dive a bit deeper into how participating archives routed around their archival systems by adding content to websites and/or subject guides, and to contemplate how archival description could be linked to that larger body of documentation.

References

Newman, J. (2012). Revisiting archive collections: Developing models for participatory cataloguing. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 33(1), 57–73.