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Within and Beyond: Enacting the archives through the practices of humanities researchers

Leigh, A. (2024). Within and Beyond: Enacting the archives through the practices of humanities researchers. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


Archives are rarely defined by the researcher. The main objectives of archives – preserving and providing access to records – have traditionally centred the archivist, enacting a boundary that places the researcher beyond the archives. In this thesis, through a relational, practice-oriented approach, I provide an alternative position that places the researcher within our understanding of the archives.

To meet this aim, this work addresses three research questions: RQ1) How do the researcher’s practices generate a meaning from the record and archives? RQ2) How do archival practices (i.e. those practices that sustain relations between records) shape the meaning that the researcher generates from the record? and RQ3) How might the practices of humanities researchers be understood as part of the archives? To answer these questions I adopted a qualitative approach, conducting observations with a total of 22 humanities researchers across two studies. The first was carried out within the archives; the second in a personalised research environment, such as the researcher’s home or office.

Seven activities are identified through which the archives are enacted both in situ and ex situ through the researcher’s practices: scanning, in-depth reading, gathering, organising, storing, configuring and creating. This work goes beyond previous discussion of these as key activities in humanities research, to examine their specific relation to the archives: in particular, how such activities enact the archives for the researcher.

These findings challenge the traditional boundaries of the archives set at the limits of the physical or virtual repository. Rather than simply accessing the records from the archives, the researcher enacts the archives in unique ways both in situ and ex situ. This allows them to generate novel insights from the record that are nonetheless grounded in the relations maintained by the archives.

Furthermore, this work suggests that the archivist and the researcher ultimately produce different archives in practice. This moves beyond a relativist understanding that sees the record as holding many different meanings, to acknowledge the multiplicity of the archives as they are enacted through practice and provides a new way of seeing the archives that has important implications for archival theory, practice, and design.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CD Diplomatics. Archives. Seals > CD921 Archives
Departments: School of Science & Technology > Computer Science
School of Science & Technology > School of Science & Technology Doctoral Theses
Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of Leigh thesis 2024 redacted PDF-A.pdf] Text - Accepted Version
This document is not freely accessible until 30 June 2025 due to copyright restrictions.


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