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.


Organizing My Messy Reading LIfe

I talk a lot about writing on this blog, but my dirty secret is that I am drowning in reading. Really. I have a backlog of reading so massive that I will never get to all of it. At times, this idea distresses me profoundly.

I realized a few years ago that I needed to be a more efficient reader, which really meant that I had to organize my reading life. I played around with lots of different web services (Diigo, Delicious, Instapaper, Evernote, etc.) to see if I could use them to help with my reading. I also hatched more than a few harebrained schemes that involved tracking my reading on a complicated system of spreadsheets. I finally settled on three pieces of software to organize my reading: Pocket, Zotero, and LibraryThing.

I used to stash my reading backlog in many places. I often forgot where I had put what and where my current TBR list was housed. Unsurprisingly, I accomplished little reading. Now that I have a system (more or less), I only save things read in my three designated places. For example, I am occasionally tempted to use Evernote to stash things that I would like to read later. I also want to import articles and web pages into the Research folder of my Scrivener projects just because it's there. However, I know I will forget to look in these places later.

Back to the system I’ve cobbled together. What Pocket, Zotero, and LibraryThing have in common is this: they’re all searchable. Each uses collections and tags to organize books, articles, and webpages. In other words, (and this is by far the most important part of figuring our some sort of reading scheme), you’ll be able to find your stuff again. [Hallelujah!]


Pocket solves that problem of saving interesting articles around the web. I use it to save any web article that I’d like to read later, but can’t get to at the moment. Several friends of mine post articles to Facebook as a way to save articles they want to read later. Although this is an okay short term solution, Facebook doesn't let you search and find again in any kind of effiient way. Pocket is a much better way to do this. Pocket lets you search your saved articles using tag, title, or URL, making finding saved articles a snap. You can also combine Pocket with IFTTT for an entirely new level of awesome. For example, I use Inoreader to subscribe to RSS feeds of news and article sources that I find interesting. I’ve set up an IFTTT recipe so that when I star an article in Inoreader, it gets sent directly to Pocket, where I can deal with it later. Pocket also allows you to download articles on your device (Kindle and Android for me) for offline reading. I catch up on a surprising amount of article reading riding the bus or when waiting in line at the grocery store.


I’ve used Zotero for years to organize my research, both primary and secondary sources. I recently discovered that several people I know do not use citation managers; I confess I was shocked. I know people who organize their research on spreadsheets, in Word documents, or, most frighteningly, in their footnotes. However, there really is a better way:  use citation management software. There’s lots of it out there and much of it is free. (Zotero is free, though you do have to pay for storage space above 300 mb. At $20/year for 2 GB of storage, I think its a screaming deal.) I use Zotero because it is cross-platform (meaning that it runs natively on my Linux boxes) and is open source. [It is way off the topic of this post to talk about the difference between free and open source software. One is free as in beer and the other is free as in speech. You have to make the choice about which is important to you.] I used to organize all of my Zotero items by collection, but I’ve discovered that I like tags better. Right now, all the sources for the article I’m working on are tagged as “Ancient Maya Mysteries.” I know I need to read anything with this tag.


LibraryThing provides library-grade software for people and small libraries. I use LibraryThing to catalog physical books I already own (or would like to own) and keep track of what I’m actually reading. (My library is here.) I mostly use it for personal reading and fiction. LT lets you slice and dice your reading data in several ways and includes option to sort books by reading dates, so I can track my reading and see what I’ve been reading most recently. [Yes, I could do this with a fancy combination of tags and collections in Zotero, but I just find LT easier for this.] There is some overlap here with my Zotero stuff. I maintain a wishlist collection on LT; however when I’m using a book for an article for research, it moves to Zotero.  

If you’re reading for research purposes, you can make your reading much more efficient. Scholarship, of course, isn’t meant to be read like a novel. Learning to read for the big picture, major arguments, and evidence was one of the best skills I ever learned. I have a short template that I use in the Zotero notes field that helps me remember to stay on track.  I talked about it a little bit in this blog post about reading THE LITERATURE for my last twelve week article.

None of all of this organizing would be any good without scheduling time to review reading and doing actual reading. Scheduling time to review stuff to read makes just as much sense as scheduling time to write. It’s easy to put off reading because it often has no deadline. Making designated reading time is tough. I would love to schedule an entire weekend day once a month just for reading. Alas, life doesn’t often allow for this. For me, reading efficiently also means prioritizing my reading: figuring out what’s important and getting it read first.  I review my reading lists: articles on Pocket, the items I’m working with in Zotero, and my LT wishlist weekly or at least monthly. 

And then the trick is carving out time to do the actual reading.

I would love to hear how other people are organizing their reading lives these days.

[Photo: Pine Street Church, Boulder, Colorado, 2015]