Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Documentation, Research, and Primary Materials

I have to admit that I'm intimidated by primary research. It seems inevitable that I will have to deal with some dusty basement filled with the archives of some sort of corporate or government operation. Langins, for example, spent a lot of time in the French military archives. Goodman did something similar with the Spanish resources and Slaton shifted her focus to the modern era and university archives on civil engineering.

Each of these researchers were studying a phenomenon other than the archives themselves. They were exploring issues of authority or communication, professionalization and the stabilization of technical artifacts. These authors were able to use the primary materials as a reflection of the phenomenon they were studying.

If the focus of our study is the documents themselves, we seem to be shit out of luck. There are very few meta-documents about the social interpretation of the documents that are the target of study. And this social interpretation is really what modern historiography is after. There are some meta-documents such as reviews but these things are likely only written for culturally (or financially) significant works. When it comes to pedestrian books such as handbooks we are faced with a distinctly more difficult task.

This problem seems to be a significant hurdle for documentation studies. If we shift our focus to the social or human realms that are representative of the phenomenon we are no longer within the sanctioned realm of library science; we have drifted to history, sociology, or anthropology. If we stick with interpreting the works we are in the world of english, theory and criticism, or even hermeneutics.

What's a researcher to do? How can we maintain a focus on documents and still be rigorous?

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