Few things can compare with the rich and rewarding hours spent in the archives, gingerly thumbing through documents and reading the historical record. With summer upon us, many historians will be heading to far-flung archives, but with access limited by recent budget cuts, it’s particularly important to carefully plan your trip well in advance. With this in mind, we put together a list of tips for researching in the archives this summer, with generous insights from colleagues like Claire Potter and Kate Theimer, blogger at ArchivesNext. Our own AHA Archives Wiki can also provide insider information about a wealth of issues from access to nearby cafés, so be sure to check there and update the information you find after your visit.
- 1. Make Contact. This may seem abundantly obvious, but the first thing you should do is read the archives’ website, check the Archives Wiki entry, and then, most importantly, contact the archives directly. Letting the staff know when you are coming and what you hope to accomplish is key to succeeding. Observes Theimer, “The most common mistake is not contacting the reference archivist in advance of one’s visit and explaining the goal of the research so that we can assist with identifying relevant sources that may be useful.”
- 2. Decide What You Want to See in Advance. You should try to identify as much as possible, in as much detail as possible, exactly what records you might want to request and let the archivist know. Many items are not on site and there may be substantive (as in weeks) lead times for requests for boxes or documents. Online catalogs can take some to learn to use efficiently, BUT…
- 3. Recognize That Most Material Isn’t Online. This is where contacting (and re-contacting) the archivists well in advance of your trip becomes critical.Telling the staff what you are looking in before you arrive greatly increases your likelihood of finding it. “You will never be anywhere nearly as good at locating relevant materials in our collections as those of us who work there,” Theimer noted candidly, “so bring us into the process.”
- 4. Know What to Expect on Your First Day. The registration process can vary greatly and add to your research time. Make sure you have the correct form of ID and have a sense of the process so that you don’t become frustrated. Be cognizant of unfamiliar parking or transportation issues that might slow you down as well.
- 5. Identify What to Bring (or Not Bring). Most people know you can’t bring a pen into an archive, but there are other reasons to stock up on pencils. You may be planning to do all your work on a laptop, but there aren’t always accessible power outlets in reading rooms and you may find yourself with a dead battery and no way to record your exciting discoveries. Different archives have different policies about cameras and scanners, so double check before you pack yours. You may also want to check the archives’ locker situation—maybe it has them, but are lockers always available and will you need a pocket full of quarters? Lastly, a sweater is always a good idea in an archive, but don’t bring a jacket with big pockets. Clothes that are comfortable and easily cleaned will be most appreciated when an old memo sheds on your corduroy.
- 6. Figure Out How to Get the Goods. Understanding how and when materials are retrieved is very important. The Society of American Archivists’ site has a great guide to using archives, and it advises to check “any limits on the amount of materials you may request or specific request times. Some archives may allow you to have multiple boxes of materials at a time; others only a single box, book, or folder at a time.” These variables can affect your efficiency and time spent in the archives, so try to get a basic sense of procedure.
- 7. Find Out What, When, and How You Can Copy. Some archives have self-serve copying machines, some have a staff person who does it for you, and almost all charge for the service. Microfilm and paper copying can be different, and scanning something else altogether. Know what the policies are and if there are any restrictions on when or what you can copy, and always bring coins, bills, and cards just to be on the safe side.
- 8. Look for Sources of Funding: Research trips are expensive. Even if your own institution or workplace won’t fund your trip, many archives and libraries sponsor travel grants. Check their funding pages, but note that many of these expect you to apply well in advance.
- 9. Recognize That Every Archive Is Different. Even different collections within the same institution, such as the Library of Congress, can have different rules. Plan accordingly.
- 10. Be of Good Cheer. Archival research is often about the unexpected, so bring patience, tenacity, and a positive attitude, particularly when you are dealing with the staff. Archivists are highly trained professionals, not just goody-retrieval machines, and should be seen and treated as partners in your research. Many archives have detailed finding aids for patrons, and these will provide the best insight into what the individual collections contain.
Let us know if you have anything to add in the comments!