Archival Research, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts aimed at people without much archival research experience who need to do some.

A lot of people I know are either at archives this week (spring break or Semana santa, depending on how you look at it) or planning to be at archives this summer. I confess that I’m jealous. Archival research is the highlight of being a historian. (Really!) Tracking down obscure primary sources feels as exciting as chasing after buried treasure. When compared to the difficulties of writing, researching is downright fun.  

However, I wish I’d had some kind of a guide when I started doing my own archival research. I didn’t receive much in the way of instruction; my department assumed that PhD students in the archives would eventually “just figure it out.” I did eventually get a handle on how to do research at archives, but learning required a bumpy process of trial and error. I learned that archival research can be intimidating, overwhelming, and baffling for the uninitiated. I’ve drawn from my own experiences here and also polled the Twitterverse for wisdom and advice for beginning researchers.

[Many thanks to all the #Twitterstorians who contributed ideas to this post: @bookmobility, @cdimas14, @icpetrie, @rachelgnew, @storied_selves, @MexHistorian, @marydudziak, @StuckeyMary, @stschrader1, and lots of nice people who retweeted my question about archival advice!]

Network Early and Often  

I’m not kidding when I say that networking is a vital part of archival research. The success of my archival PhD research was directly tied to the relationships I created with archivists and other researchers. If writing is always better when made social, archival research is way better when made social.

Figure out through your professional network who has been to the archive you’ll be headed to. Do you know any fellow researchers who will be at the archive while you’re there? Network ahead of time so that you’ve already got some friends and colleagues when you arrive. Get in touch with them and ask them what their research experiences have been like. What tips can they give you? Other researchers can help you think through your research, as well as point you to interesting and relevant sources that you may not have known existed. They’ll also help make your archival research experience less lonely.  

Relationships with archivists can make or break an archival research experience. Aside from being nice and respectful to people because it’s the right thing to do, making friends with archivists often leads to research breakthroughs. More than one person I know has reported that helpful documents have magically started showing up when they establish friendships with the archivists. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Little things can help you cement your relationships with archive staff. Introduce yourself to the director. Remember people’s names. Write down names to put in your acknowledgments. Take people out to lunch when possible. Send a thank you card to the staff when you’re done. Bring people brownies.       

Do as much research ahead of time as possible.

Learn the archive’s policies ahead of time. Do they allow photography? Photocopies? Do they charge for it? What are photo reproduction policies? Does the archive require that you send a list of documents you want to examine ahead of time? Does the archive only allow pencils? Some archives have very clear policies about these things, while others have policies that change depending on which staff members are working that day.

If the archive has any kind of online catalog, do as much research ahead of time as possible. Make a list of documents that seem like they might be helpful, just to get you started. Often times, you may not know what you’re looking for when you first start, but you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s okay not to know everything at first.

Despite all of your great research ahead of time, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Anyone who has done archival research will tell you to be prepared to hear that the documents you want don’t exist. Sometimes the things listed in the catalog are not in the box. Sometimes there are no subject headings for your topic. Sometimes documents have been stolen. Sometimes they’re damaged or the paleography is impossible. You could look at these as roadblocks or you could look at them as opportunities. Sometimes having to use your own ingenuity and creativity will unearth some really great stuff.  

Get a good camera.

You may be able to take awesome photos with your smartphone, but for photographing archival documents to consult later, you’ll probably want a an actual camera. I don’t think its necessary to lug a DSLR to an archive unless you really want to. If you can afford it, upgrade your digital camera to the best one you can get. I shoot archive photos with a pocket camera, the marvelous Canon S95. It is worth thinking about the size of the sensor, as many archives seem to suffer from poor lighting. A camera with a big sensor will be able to take clear photos in dim light. A flip screen will also help save your back. A small lightweight tripod also does wonders for producing clear, sharp photos.  Consider these two photos. The one on the right was taken with a cheap digital camera and without a tripod. The one on the left was with my S95 and a tripod.


Practice Self-Care

Archival research, although really fun and exciting, can also be a profoundly lonely and isolating experience. As historians, we’re usually working alone, spending hours a day reading old documents. Self-care is particularly important when you’re researching in a foreign archive. Not only will you be dealing with the usual research stresses, but also with different cultures and languages and all of the stress that goes with travel.

It’s easy to go through long periods where the research isn’t going well, you’re faced with the prospect of sorting through another huge pile of documents that probably aren’t useful, the box doesn’t have the document that was listed in the catalog, etc etc.  Plenty of people get discouraged while doing research.  So, get your self-care practice in order. Eat well. (Especially eat a big protein breakfast!) Hydrate. Get some exercise. Take breaks. Sleep enough. Be social.

Next post: nuts and bolts of being in the archive.