Introduction to MARA 285 — Research Methods


Published: March 14, 2016 by Anna Maloney

Confused about MARA 285 Research Methods in Records Management and Archival Science? Lecturer Josh Zimmerman walks you through the course.

By Josh Zimmerman, MARA 285 Lecturer and Guest Author

I’m Josh Zimmerman, lecturer for MARA 285: Research Methods in Records Management and Archival Science. For those who have already taken this course, you know what this class is all about. This post, however, is for those who haven’t, which is probably a lot of you reading this. Hopefully, this will help clear up two big points of confusion that some students had about the overall nature of the course last year. It will also get you thinking about possible topics that you might want to focus on for the class and research areas to pursue in your career.

One source of confusion last year was the overall aim of the course. First and foremost, this course is designed to acclimate you to conducting research as an archivist or records manager would. Although doing actual archival research (i.e. digging through folders and boxes in a repository) is part of the research we do as information professionals, it’s only one of the many methods employed by researchers and it’s one tool in the research toolbox which we’ll be exploring in the class.

Another area where some students were confused was in the choice of appropriate writing topics. Unlike other MARA classes which have distinct thematic structures such as Records Creation, Appraisal, and Retention and Electronic Recordkeeping Systems and Issues in Electronic Recordkeeping, this class is wide open. While we’ll be exploring research from a social science perspective, students are nevertheless limited to archival, records management, and more broadly, information management topics in their choice of research topics. That means, that using primary sources found in archives doesn’t automatically make the topic an archival one. For instance, choosing a topic such as the origin of Respect des Fonds in post-Revolutionary France would be appropriate while a project based on archival research on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte would not be appropriate. This limitation is to ensure that you’re engaging with the literature, debates, and discussions in our profession. This shouldn’t discourage you from exploring non-RIM topics that you find interesting. I’m simply asking that you find an archives or information management perspective, angle, or tie in. So in our Napoleon example above, if you found a way to tie in recordkeeping, then this topic would be acceptable. You could explore the effect that the Napoleonic Code had on civil recordkeeping in 19th Century France or countless other topics.

Say you’re interested in bicycle culture. While a cultural history of the bicycle wouldn’t be acceptable, a study of recent archival efforts to collect materials on this topic would be. Explore this topic from the perspective of an archivist. For instance, you could address the lack of collections relating to bicycles or create best practices or ways to collect this material. Say you want to be a photo archivists or a visual materials curator when you graduate the program. A topic on orientalism in professional photography might not be applicable to this course, but applying that to the study of orientalism in Western archival repositories’ appraisal of photograph collections would be. Maybe you were a philosophy major in college and you really liked the philosophy of Plato. In this class, a discussion of Platonic thought in general wouldn’t really be acceptable, even if you used primary sources found in an archives. If, however, you discussed it in the context of RIM, then would it be not only acceptable, but very interesting as well. For instance, how has Platonic thought influenced records retention schedule creation?

A good question to ask yourself about appropriate topics is: would I be able to publish this topic in an archives or RIM journal or publication? This question will help to focus your topic. To be clear, an appropriate archival or RIM topic benefits archivists or records managers primarily. Many unacceptable topics can be easily remedied by some research, creativity, and depending on the topic, hard work. I’m committed to working with your interests (and even those outside the profession) to produce a RIM research proposal. The variety of interests (and experiences) that students have incorporated into their research is probably the most fascinating part of the class for me.

This is probably the only time during the course of your graduate career that you can focus this extensively on one research topic for an entire semester, taking time to develop it and explore it in various ways. Hopefully, this class will set you on a course for publishing and conducting research in the profession. But even if you never publish a word in a professional journal, this class can help you critically analyze the research of others which is a skill that all RIM professionals need to know.

I look forward to meeting you all. Until then, if you have any questions about the class, research, or anything else, please send me an email.


*It is also important to note that MARA 285 is the only course that supports Competency I: “Understand research design and research methods and possess the analytical, written, and oral communication skills to synthesize and disseminate research findings.” 


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