Emerging research on personal interest researchers in archives

Photo by Sunny Morgan on Unsplash

Archives Month 2023 is coming to an end in the US. If you want to get caught up on our posts celebrating the interesting things we learned about archives and users of archives through the Building a National Finding Aid Network (NAFAN) project, check out other posts on the project. Following on the great work Chela Scott Weber has been posting about the increase of the use of cameras in the reading room and the increased demand for digitized records or reproductions, this post will highlight the emergence of a new area of study for archival user studies: personal or leisure research.

Personal pursuits are an area of study that almost everyone can identify with at some point in their life. While we may search for many things related to our work or schooling, we also casually pursue topics that interest us that lead us to an answer quickly and that is the end of our journey. Leisure information-seeking behavior can take anyone on a journey to becoming more serious about a topic or area of interest, and with the increasing amount of information on the web, especially historical or primary source material held in archives, it’s no wonder that a large number of people are finding their way to archival aggregators. The NAFAN pop-up survey is the first to capture how prevalent leisure researchers are in online users of archival aggregators across the country.

The largest groups of users that responded to the NAFAN survey in 2021 was a diverse group of online archival seekers that we call “Personal interest researchers” (n=711). This name is derived from the commonality in their project purpose. No matter if they selected class assignments, family history research, or a thesis, they also checked the box for “personal interest” making them a unique group that considers their search and discovery of archival materials to be a personal pursuit.

Figure 1. NAFAN Personal Interest Researchers’ Research Purpose

They range in age, education, gender and profession. No other characteristic holds them together as a group.

High school15.9%
Associate’s degree10.5%
Bachelor’s degree35.3%
Master’s degree26.6%
Doctoral degree11.7%
Age 180.4%
Age 19 to 256.3%
Age 26 to 346.9%
Age 35 to 446.9%
Age 45 to 5411.8%
Age 55 to 6424.2%
Age 65+40.6%
Prefer not to say age2.7%
Prefer not to say gender3.5%
Table 1. NAFAN Personal interest researcher demographics for education, age, and gender
Figure 2. NAFAN Personal interest researchers by profession

Reported professions of the personal interest researcher weigh heavily towards retirees followed by lifelong learners (37% for retirees and 11.5% for lifelong learners). These two subgroups are interesting in their undefined nature, telling us on the research team that there are large numbers of users searching and finding archival materials and descriptions online that are motivated towards personal pursuit.

Fifty-four percent of personal interest researchers said that they found the archival aggregation site from a web browser (i.e., Google, Bing, Yahoo). We have all been there starting with a search engine. When describing their information-seeking broadly personal interest researchers use more than search engines. Twenty-one percent of personal interest researchers reported consulting an archival website (such as the Library of Congress or historical society websites). They also consulted Wikipedia (12.1%) and university library websites (7.7%). From their write-in answers we also know that personal interest researchers are consulting the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, JSTOR, Newspapers.com and historical websites online alongside peer-to-peer sharing sites like GitHub, Reddit and YouTube.

One aspect of the search behavior of personal interest users that one might assume is different from other users which is how they prefer to access materials held in archives, but in fact, 45.4% of personal interest researchers reported a preference for online over in-personal materials compared to 42.7% of NAFAN pop-up survey respondents overall.

Having similarities with other user groups such as faculty or academic researchers, graduate students or genealogists will not have much of an impact on archival reference or reading room policies, though these researchers may pop up more often in reference requests or in-person. These users are mostly aged 55 and older, suggesting that their personal interests will follow them into and throughout their retirement. Future research on this group will be an interesting complement to previous work on archival users helping to show the reach and value of archives to all.

That wraps up our series! Until next Archives Month, in 2024!