Archival Research, Part II

This is the second installment of a series aimed at people without much archival experience who need to do some. Part I can be found here.

Congratulations! You’ve networked and made friends with fellow researchers and archivists. You’ve figured out the archive's policies. You’ve done some preliminary research and made a list of sources that you think will be helpful. You’re taking good care of yourself during your research and have eaten a good breakfast and drank some water. The archive has made you an official ID or badge. You’re sitting at the table or desk with a box, folder, or bundle of archival documents like a real researcher.


Now what?

Now comes the actual researching part. Sometimes your detective skills will lead you directly to a bunch of documents that promise to answer all your research questions and unravel the mysteries of the universe. Other times, you’ll find yourself squinting at some random document that has nothing to do with your research and thinking, “WTF?” It’s all a part of the experience. Here’s some advice about getting through your research experience:

Have the right stuff

Researching is easier when you have the right tools at hand. If you’ve researched the archive’s policies beforehand, you’ll know helpful things like if you should take only pencils, if you can take in a notebook, if backpacks are prohibited, etc.

You’ll need some kind of computer/tablet for note taking and recording your research.  I did my research in Guatemala City, in a zone notorious for armed assaults and theft. Instead of taking my nice-ish laptop to the archive, I bought a cheap netbook. I backed up my research daily both online and to an external drive (I strongly recommend CrashPlan for this). I was never assaulted and had my stuff stolen while doing my research, but I knew plenty of people who were. In the event that someone had stolen my cheap netbook, making regular backups ensured that I would never lose precious data.

As far as using software in the archives, make sure your software solutions work offline. Many archives offer researchers use of wifi, but I’ve worked in several that don’t.  Plan accordingly.

Whatever your tech solutions, consider battery life. External portable battery chargers may be worth the investment. Some older archives don’t have many electrical outlets and some charge researchers to use the electricity. Charge all of your devices before you arrive at the archive (tablet, phone, camera battery, computer, etc). Nothing puts a damper on research joy than realizing it’s only 10am and your camera battery has just run out of juice. I speak from experience.

Other nice things to have include toilet paper (not even joking), some kind of pocket on a lanyard for IDs and stuff, and noise canceling headphones. Archives can be surprisingly loud places.   

Read or scan the stuff

Before you start reading and handling documents, put on some gloves and a mask. I’ve worked in some archives that don’t require researchers to wear protective clothing. However, oil from your fingers can damage documents. Old documents (and sometimes even newer ones), are often covered in dust and grime composed of I know not what. Your lungs will thank you for not subjecting them to archive dust. Gloves and masks are readily available, cheap, and help protect you and the documents. Wash your hands frequently, too. (In some cases, bring soap or hand sanitizer with you to the archive!)

You’ll need to devise a system to read efficiently. Some researchers prefer to photograph everything and read it later at home; others prefer to skim documents in the archive and only photograph relevant stuff. In part, your choices here will reflect the amount of time and money you have to complete your research. The amount of time you spend also depends on your language skills and paleography abilities, in turn dependent on your subject area and time period.

I tend to actually do my reading in the archive and take lots of notes.


If you’re going to cite your research later, you’re going to need to record all of the relevant classification data: date, archive, box, folder, location, drawer, author, subject, etc. Archives all have their own systems of classification, so you’ll need to figure out how the archive is organized. In the Archivo General de Centro America (AGCA), for example, documents are divided between colonial and national periods, and then further broken down by signatura, expediente, legajo, folio, and foja. Here, for example, is a card from the old card catalog about the discovery of the Tikal ruins in 1848 with all of the relevant information for locating this document in the archive:

So in this example, the signatura is B, indicating that this document is from the national period, the Legajo is 28543, the Expediente is 89, and the folio is 2. If I needed to find this document again in the archive, I could use this information to find it pretty quickly.
If you’re lucky, someone has written a guide to the archive where you’ll be researching and figured this stuff out for you already. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Here, for example, are some research guides that I’ve read about Central American archives:

Research Guide to Central America and the Caribbean
El archivo municipal de Patizicia: cuadro de organizacion e inventario general
A Report on Colonial Materials on the Governmental Archives of Guatemala City
Central American Archives: Colonialism to Independence

Many archives have indices to their documentary collections. The AGCA, for example, has a nice index for all of the Ministerio de Fomento documents. Ask the archivists about any finding guides or indexes you might not know about.

If you are confused about how the archive is organized, ask. You’ll thank yourself later.

Taking notes on archival documents takes a little practice. I try to include a rough description of the document, the author (if known), and anything that stands out to me. In this document about Tikal, for example, I made a note about how Modesto Méndez recommended to the Guatemalan government that samples of the stones at Tikal should be examined by “inteligentes.”  I later used this bit of evidence as part of an argument about debates over the origins of the ancient Maya.

Writing up research notes and observations at night is a great habit to develop. What did you find? What did you not find? What are your hunches? Consistently writing up research notes help keeps you on track. It also will remind you that you *are* making progress, especially in those moments when you feel like you’re just wasting time. I use Evernote for this. I always include the date, the metadata (again!) of any documents I looked at, research ideas, thoughts about how these documents may (or may not) fit into my overall research project.

Label photos

Recall from my last post that you’re going to want a camera that takes good photos in low light (preferably with a flip screen) and a lightweight tripod for clear, sharp photos. Test your camera set up before you arrive. There is nothing more distressing than taking hundreds of archive photos and then getting home and realizing you’ve taken such shitty photos that you can’t read them.
Digital photo technology makes it easy to snap hundreds of shots of documents in a short period of time. Having lots of archival photos is awesome, but you need to make sure you know what you’ve got. Some people seem to be able to remember in what order they took their photos and effortlessly match them with their corresponding metadata. I regret to report that I’m not one of those people. I include identification information on little bits of paper in every single photo I take. This method has saved me on many occasions. You can see here how I've labeled this photo:


You’ll need some way to organize your photos, too. A lot of photo software exists that will magically organize your photos by date. As I’m a Linux user, I use Shotwell. The Mac people I know seem to favor iPhoto. (I confess that I don’t know what Windows people use.) Once Shotwell has grabbed my photos, I tag them all with the metadata mentioned above. I also tag them with relevant subjects: archaeology, Tikal, Guatemala, AGCA. To find my photos again, I either search for subject tags or the tag with the metadata.   

Organize, organize, organize.

The other thing that is vitally important to your research mission is keeping a log of some kind of what documents you’ve already read. This is absolutely necessary to avoid duplicating research efforts and saving time. Everyone develops their own system eventually. My first step involves an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the date I read the documents and the metadata mentioned above, as well as whether I photographed the document and the date of my photos. I also record all relevant data about documents I will read in the future. I like the Excel method, as I can see all of my research efforts in one place. It’s like having a main index to my research.

Second, anything that has the kind of metadata I mentioned above goes on both the spreadsheet and in my Zotero library. I cross reference the data on my Excel sheet with my Zotero database, which is where I take notes on the documents I read. Here’s an example from my actual research using the document above.


I also attach individual archive photos to my Zotero items, as seen above. If you use Zotero, be warned that it cannot perform OCR (optical character recognition) on digital photos. Performing OCR on all of my archive photos is beyond even my obsessive nature, so I just attach them to the main item and make sure that I can find it again. I’ve found that tags work better for me than collections, as an item can have more than one tag. If you look at the bottom left of my Zotero photo, you can see that I've tagged this with AGCA, history of archaeology, primary source, and Tikal. Once I've got the item tagged, I can find it again easily.

Anything I need to write down that doesn’t have specific metadata attached to it (for example, my nightly archive notes) gets stored in Evernote. If I take notes by hand, I snap photos of them and upload them to EN, which will OCR and index handwriting.  I make sure to tag all of my research notes for easy retrieval later. I use tags like: archive notes, AGCA, research, etc.     

So after all this notetaking and organizing, I’m left with an Excel sheet to index and track my research, which is then cross-referenced with my Zotero database for notes on specific documents, which is cross referenced with my photos, which is all finally cross-referenced with my Evernote research notes. If I need to find this document about Tikal, for example, I can find its metadata by searching my tag for Tikal in Zotero, find it on my research spreadsheet, find all my photos of this document, and check my research notes about it in Evernote.
If labeling your photos and taking notes and organizing your research sounds time consuming and obsessive, it’s because it is. I offer my personal system here merely as an example. I'm not sure a perfect system exists. You need to come up with your system. When you do, I promise that writing up your research will be easier and faster and involve less crying. Promise.


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.