Joint Information Systems Committee - Archives Sub-committee

Survey of needs

2. Methodology

Three major factors had to be considered in designing the project methodology:

2.1 Institutions to be included

The scope of the survey is discussed in section 3.1.1 and a list of the institutions included is in Appendix 2: Lists of institutions to which the questionnaire was sent. This list has been updated on the basis of responses received. As well as the funding bodies' lists, address details were checked using the following sources:

Wherever possible the name of the archivist, or failing that the librarian, in each institution was traced and the survey addressed personally to that person.

2.2 Information to be collected

As the terms of reference called for an "overview", and as there are no agreed objective criteria of "adequacy" for many areas, it was decided that the survey should concentrate on collecting basic factual information about collections and their documentation, conservation, storage and use. This data could then be assessed against any criteria that might exist or that might be adopted later.

Many institutions are currently working on projects to improve the state of their collections, some using project funding from the joint funding council initiative for Specialised Research Collections in the Humanities. The possibility of including questions about current projects and funding was discussed, but decided against, partly because much of the information is available from elsewhere and partly to avoid complicating the survey.

2.3 Survey procedure and questionnaire design

In view of the limited time and resources allocated to the project, it was decided that a postal survey was the only feasible approach. Surveys by telephone or personal visit would have taken more time, and would have been difficult to schedule, although they would have allowed for the immediate resolution of any queries or uncertainties about interpretation of questions. On the other hand the postal survey could be completed at a time to suit the respondent, and its completion could be interrupted if any data had to be collected. It was also easier for institutions to pass on a printed survey to the appropriate people, or to leave it until they became available; this was important because much of the survey period overlapped the summer vacation.

The questionnaire was designed to collect objective data where possible, though for some areas such data does not exist. Respondents were encouraged to estimate figures as well as they could rather than leaving questions blank, and in some questions they were asked to assess factors on scales ranging from "Poor" to "Good" or from "Unimportant" to "Important". Provision was made for a category of "Other" where enumerative lists of options could not be assumed to include all possibilities, but apart from that the number of open-ended questions was kept to a minimum to simplify both completion and analysis. A general "Comment" section was provided at the end of the questionnaire for any remarks, including the accuracy or reliability of the figures, recent or forthcoming policy changes, and any other feedback.

2.4 Pilot study

A draft version of the questionnaire was discussed at a meeting on 6th June 1997 with representatives of the JISC Archives Sub-Committee, the Public Record Office and the Royal Commission on Historic Manuscripts. The revised version resulting from this meeting (somewhat longer and more complex than the original) was sent as a pilot study for completion by six institutions nominated by the Sub-Committee. This led to the approval of a final version incorporating a few further amendments.

Although the Society of Archivists' Best practice guideline "Measuring performance" recommends that the extent of archive collections should be measured in m3, the meeting advised that most archivists would not have measures of their collections in these units. They considered that asking them to provide them would cause problems and reduce the likelihood of information being provided. Volumetric measurement was included experimentally in the pilot questionnaire and this confirmed that it would cause problems, so the final questionnaire asked for extent of holdings in linear metres of shelf space occupied.

2.5 Dispatch and follow-up of questionnaire

The questionnaire was dispatched on 8th July 1997 asking for responses by 31st July. A message was sent to the electronic mailing lists LIS-JISC-ARCHIVES, ARCHIVES-NRA and LIS-LINK to notify potential respondents that the survey had been dispatched and to ask them to check that it had reached the right person in each institution. It also invited any institutions that had not received a copy to ask for one.

After 31st July, a further e-mail message was sent to the above lists asking anyone who had not responded to do so if at all possible, and extending the acceptance date to 8th August. In addition, faxes were sent to those institutions shown in British Archives as having non-institutional archive collections but which had not yet responded. After the extended date had passed telephone calls were made to several institutions as a further follow-up.

A few responses continued to arrive, but those received after 21st August could not be incorporated because analysis of the data had proceeded too far by then to allow for re-working tables and figures. Three responses were excluded for this reason, but none of them showed significant holdings of non-institutional archives.

2.6 Analysis

Responses were transcribed into an Excel 97 spreadsheet, and summaries prepared using its filtering and data analysis functions. The report including tables was prepared in an associated Word 97 document, which contained links to allow merging of histograms from the Excel data.

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