Search Processes, User Behaviour and Archival Representational Systems

University dissertation from Sundsvall : Mittuniversitetet

Abstract: Information technology and political motives, e.g. e-governance, freedom of information legislation, has recent years lead to an increasing emphasis on users and access to records, but little research based knowledge about those issues exist so far. The main focus of the previous research is the use of non-current records in archival repositories. The aim of this thesis is to make a contribution to the research field, in order to gain a better understanding of the information behaviour of users of records in contemporary organizational settings. The research questions addressed are:§ How are records used in contemporary organizations?- In what context and for what purposes are records used?- What user categories can be identified?§ How is the search for records mediated?- What intermediaries are used in the search process?- How well do the features of the artefactual intermediaries serve the users' information needs?- What is the role of human intermediaries?An additional purpose of the study is to contribute to theory development, and to provide a conceptual model of the information behaviour of users of records that can form the basis for further research.The thesis is based on explorative case studies undertaken in two contemporary Swedish public organizations, one municipality and one governmental agency. Data was collected through interviews, analysis of documentary sources and complementary observations. The analysis of the findings was guided by a theoretical framework consisting of activity theory informed by concepts from archival theory and models of information behaviour.The results of the cases studies showed that information behaviour of users of records and the search process could be described as a part of an activity system. The search process was a sub-ordinated activity of other activities. The needs for records was generated by a task or accomplishment of anykind with purpose to achieve something. Those needs motivated the purposes of use of records: material, operational, accountability seeking or knowledge enhancing purposes. The subjects, users in collaboration with the registrars and archivists, seeked to obtain records with help of different mediational means, e.g. artifactual intermediaries as the journal and the archives inventory that could be defined as representational systems, in order to reach a certain outcome: fact-finding, re-construction of past actions and events, regaining experience and knowledge, verifying status, or illustrating and exemplifying.A variety of user groups, internal as well as external, could be identified in both organizations. Those could act as direct or indirect users, and indirect use by one part meant direct use by another who acted as a mediator between the records and the end users. The external users could be defined as stakeholders of the organizations or other users. Users showed, with occasional exceptions, a preference for informal means of mediation, particularly personal communication.Certain features of the formal representational systems, journals and inventories, could be identified, which made them less useful as search tool. Those were generated by contradictions and tensions within the organizations: contradictions within the representational systems; contradictions between the tasks of the users and the representational systems; contradictions between user requests and the access points in the representational systems; contradictions between external users and the activities of the organizations; contradictions between exogenous institutional conditions and the the activities of the organizations; and contradictions of a temporal character. These circumstances necessitated an active intervention of human intermediaries. This could be seen as an example of the division of labour in the organizations. Search and retrieval of records were part of the registrars’ and the archivists’ specific professional knowledge, but were not considered as primary tasks of other employees or, especially not, of the external users.The results of the study contributes to to the knowledge about the use of records, and how records are approached. It provides a model of the search process that can form the basis for further research. The practical implications of the findings could be improved search tools and user services, i.e. enhanced access. The thesis can also contribute to theoretical enrichment of the field by combining a more comprehensive social theory with archival theory and concepts from information science. 

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