Capturing Academic Expertise: How and Why?

The Research Team is currently in the process of producing The National Archives’ new Academic Engagement Strategy. This strategy will highlight our continuing commitment to our academic audience and also demonstrate the new ways in which we would like to engage and collaborate with the academic community to improve The National Archives services for all of our users.

One aspect we are particularly interested in exploring is how we might capture and utilise the research and records expertise of our academic users. Academics develop an unparalleled expertise in the records they research: situating individual records in rich, dynamic and comprehensible historical contexts; understanding the processes and performances surrounding the creation, role and implementation of the records; and highlighting links, connections and relationships between records from different collections. This knowledge and understanding has an important role to play in meeting the institutional mandate of The National Archives – in advancing our understanding of what we hold.

SP 16/27 (54) - Letter describing the capture of Turkish pirates in Cornwall, May 1626.

There is huge potential for academics to contextualise and bring to life exciting historical records such as this

At the moment, it is more than possible – if not commonplace – for academics to visit The National Archives, spend hours consulting the records we hold and leave at the end of the day, without anybody here having a firm grasp of what they have been researching or what they have discovered. Yes, academics might mention their subjects of research to members of staff on duty in the Reading Rooms and there are some really exciting opportunities to be explored around using citation tracker tools to locate what research publications our records have underpinned. We also know that academics – and particularly PhD students and early career researchers – are incredibly enthusiastic about wanting to tell us what they have been using our records for, what they have discovered and what they have published as a result of those discoveries. However, there is no systematic way of collecting information on what research our records are being used for and the innovative ways in which our records are being deployed, linked and interpreted. The purpose of this blog post is to ask you, are we missing out and if so, on what?

Clearly, this ‘capturing’ would need to be a voluntary rather than a mandatory system. We also understand that the research time set aside by academics to visit archives is precious – they do not want to waste time filling in forms and questionnaires. Do we try and capture this information on site – on entry, or exit, or in the reading rooms? Or should we advertise it on our website? Would an online/digital system work better than a paper system? And there would be data protection issues to consider. If any academics are reading this, it would be useful to know what would encourage you to or deter you from joining such a scheme? One option would be to expand our academic contacts database used to send out our Research enewsletter and other news of interest to academics. Your suggestions would be most welcome!

To give you an idea of what the information might be used for, our initial thoughts on the potential practical uses for the scheme could include:

  • Feeding it into the cataloguing process.  Learning what types of information and what record series (collections) academics would like to become searchable in our catalogue as a higher priority.
  • As ‘Discovery’, our online catalogue, becomes more advanced, asking experts on certain records to add contextual information (metadata) to those records.
  • Identifying and targeting the most appropriate academics for collaborative research projects; promotional activities; talks and presentations; and so on.

These kinds of activities and interactions would not represent a one-sided exploitation of academics and their expertise.  We sincerely hope that academics will be open to these ideas and willing to feed their expertise back into The National Archives, primarily because their input will make The National Archives a better place for them to work; and secondly, because the kinds of activities we would ask them to be involved with would be really good for demonstrating REF (Research Excellence Framework) impact.

Again, your comments or suggestions would be most welcome!  Please email

Forthcoming editions of our Research enewsletter will feature sections focusing on innovative research into our collections.

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