Brown Bag Seminar Wednesday 4 March: Review

Alan Brine, 'The information needs of historic houses in the United Kingdom'

Head of Technical Services in the library at De Montfort University, Alan's talk on his PhD research was slightly different to other seminars I have been to in that it focused on information management. It is not an area of study I know much about (apart from the odd foray as part of the MA I did in Art and Heritage Management at the University of Sheffield) so forgive me if I have confused some of the terms. It was also the first time that Alan had presented his research, although that would not have immediately been evident from his lively and interesting discussion. It was also useful to find out about his research methods as he was a part-time student, and it also gave me renewed hope that combining such intense study and a job is possible!

Alan took us logically through the way in which he had structured his research, and subsequently his PhD thesis. His main aim was look at how historic houses (or more broadly, heritage establishments) manage the information that they need and how they go about getting that information. There was seen to be a distinction made between the perception of those who work in historic houses and the gaps in practice that could be identified by the researcher, with the intention of putting forward some recommendations. A familiar perception identified by Alan was that historic house managers tended not to think of themselves as running a business, although in practice many of the practical elements of running a historic house which is open to the public are very much like a business. However the models presented in the information management literature still did not seem entirely relevant to Alan to explain what was taking place within a heritage establishment so he set out to establish his own 'research model' as a result which amalgamated bits and pieces from various disciplines. This was a very familiar story to us in Museum Studies!

Alan talked us through the literature review that he carried out prior to his research he felt that it was essential to read around the subject first, although he commented that in some faculties he had been to the opposite was emphasised. The scope of his literature review was interesting, encompassing as it did historical context as well as the role of the historic house in the current economic climate. It also necessitated reading a lot of 'grey material' such as journals and magazines produced for example National Trust members to get an idea of how historic houses position themselves for their users. The upshot of the review was that it revealed historic houses were managed in a number of diverse ways, mostly private, but shared a number of common information needs which suggested some scope for improvement. As Alan had recently finished his PhD he was able to let us into a few secrets, for example that aims and objectives do not necessarily have to remain the same across the lifespan of the thesis! In Alan's case he told us how 'tacit knowledge' turned out to be far more important than he had originally envisaged.

In terms of his research methodolgy, Alan used a stratified sample of historic houses so that it would be representative of all the different types of houses in terms of size, management type, location and audience. From 1000 houses he approached 50% of these with a postal survey; around 36% were returned, some of which were blank. However as Alan pointed out, the fact that some were returned blank with comments along the lines of 'this is not relevant to us' told him what he needed to know - that some historic houses do not even conceive of themselves as needing to manage the information that they need/use. Seven case studies with semi-structured interviews with property managers were undertaken to help make sense of the survey data and highlighted some of the ways in which historic house management is slightly more bizarre than the usual 9-5 job, for instance Alan talked about how arriving at one historic property he found a note attached to the door saying 'back in ten minutes gone to fetch the children from school' or interviewing the manager in the kitchen, surrounded by the ironing. The more intimate, family-run nature of such enterprises is therefore a key feature for some historic houses.

When writing up his thesis Alan concentrated on five key themes which emerged from his analysis, which he used to structure his chapters. These were Diversity of activities, needs of the property managers, adequacy of the information, improvement in the use of information and collaboration. His key findings were that rather than make use of a wide variety of information, including that given to them by related organisations such as the National Trust or English Heritage, property managers tended to rely on local, 'trusted sources' for getting information or resolving a problem. Contact would be made by telephone to an actual person known to them or someone who had been recommended, rather than using a source such as the Internet or the Yellow Pages. The highly personal nature of property management was therefore emphasised. Another issue for managers was that whilst they were asked to collect a lot of information as part of their job they did not always know what to do with the information, or felt that they had the time or inclination to do anything with it. As a result they tended to use 'tacit knowledge' and trusted sources which they had used in the past and which they knew had been effective. Smaller organisations were slightly disadvantaged in this way since they did not have the financial resources often to have access to the best information or resourcess, unlike the larger properties who placed an emphasis on having the best despite the cost. It was suggested therefore that property managers might not always be able to make the best use of the information or resources at their disposal and they were very much focused on problem-solving rather than proactively working towards a strategy. It was not surprising that maintenance was the most important concern for property managers, followed by education and marketing. Competition with other leisure attractions, and other historic houses, also framed the responses of the managers which suggests that the way in which information is used is not only local to the house itself but also comes under pressure from external considerations.

All in all it was a fascinating insight into the world of historic house management.


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