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.


Ten Ideas for Improving Writing

In honor of the tenth post on my blog, here's a list of ten ideas to improve writing skills!

1. Eliminate Passive Voice

Many novice writers construct sentences in passive voice by default. Nevertheless, using the passive voice without a clear purpose flattens even the best writing. Writing that strings together passive voice sentences seems lifeless and limp. Sentences written in passive voice invert the natural subject-verb-object (SVO) order. Sentences in passive voice place the emphasis on the object rather than the subject (creating SOV order). As readers, we have to work harder to understand who did what to whom. When I read other people’s writing, I flag instances of passive voice, like this one:

“The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox.”

The lazy dog is at the beginning of the sentence, grabbing our attention, but the lazy dog doesn’t DO anything in this sentence. The quick brown fox is the actor and performs the jumping, but his or her position at the end of the sentence minimizes the fox as the actor. We expect to find the actor at the beginning doing an action, not at the end of the sentence, performing an action to the object at the beginning.

The active voice shows us who does what to whom. I urge writers to learn, understand, and use the active voice until they have mastered it. Use the active voice unless you really know what you’re doing with the passive voice and have become some kind of verb ninja. Learn to use the passive voice with intention, not because you don’t know any better.

Write in active voice: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

2. Start Sentences with Clear actors, Rather Than Vague Pronouns

I think writers tend to begin sentences with vague pronouns (this, that, or these) to avoid repeating themselves. Beginning as sentence with either one of these phrases raises no immediate grammar flags; however, the meaning of the pronouns may not be clear. Writers often think that the reader will understand what the pronoun stands for. Readers, on the other hand, may not follow. For example, a writer analyzing the physiology of foxes jumping over lazy dogs might write:

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. This reveals…”

The pronoun at the beginning of the second sentence isn’t clear. This what? This particular kind of jump? This fox? This lazy dog? This kind of jump over the lazy dog? We’re not sure. The writer could make the sentence clearer by keeping a firm grip on the reader’s hand throughout the sentence:

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The fox’s jumps reveal that…” Now we see that the writer is talking about the fox’s jumps and telling us that they mean something specific. A little bit repetitive? Sure. But infinitely clearer with actual nouns and verbs instead of vague pronouns that make us guess at their meaning and what they stand for.

3. Avoid Nominalizations

Academic writers love nominalizations (especially me) and use them with relish. Nominalizations are nouns and adjectives made out of verbs and (sometimes) other nouns. They end in suffixes like -ism, ity, -ness, -tion, -ize, -ment, etc. Excavate becomes excavation. Perform becomes perfomativity. A whole bunch of nouns become antidisestablishmentarianism (opposition to those who oppose the establishment). Writers who use too many nominalizations bombard their readers with that kind of academic jargon-speak that everyone loves to hate.

Use the concrete noun or verb forms of nominalizations. You don’t mean conceptualizations. You mean concepts (which really means that you mean ideas). You don’t mean performativity. You mean to perform. And so on.

The quick brown fox engaged in the performativity of jumping…” Obnoxious. Use the verb form of nominalizations and watch sentences like these melt away.

4. Use Shorter Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs

Big words are fun to play with, but often frustrate readers. For example, write “many” instead of “numerous.” Just as readers understand short words more easily, so do they also understand shorter sentences. Writers often lose readers when they insist on packing too many ideas into a single sentence. Using small words, make a sentence with one idea. Allow the reader to grasp the concept, and move on to the next idea. Make some short paragraphs. No reader wants to face a solid wall of text. Be kind; write short sentences and paragraphs with simple words.

5. Punctuate Properly.

Readers dislike reading sentences with poor punctuation. Proper punctuation tells the reader where to pause, stop, and how to understand the words.

No one likes reading something without punctuation because then we don’t know where to stop or where one idea ends and another one begins or what if two clauses need to be joined and there’s no punctuation to tell us that the ideas are related and in general reading without punctuation is a terrible experience for everyone involved.

Learning punctuation and grammar rules intimidates many people; however, proper punctuation increases the clarity of any text. We understand where to pause, where to stop, and how ideas are connected. Learning proper punctuation isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but neither is fighting through incorrect punctuation to understand an idea.

6. Omit needless words.

I love cutting words to improve clarity. Many writers bog down their good ideas with unnecessary words. I am amazed by how many words I can cut without losing the meaning of a sentence. Many writers rely on adverbs and adjectives to add detail to their writing; however, concrete nouns and verbs also describe things clearly. Writing without adjectives feels strange at first, especially for writers (okay, me) used to describing everything in excessive detail. The trick is to use better verbs and nouns; when used with care, real nouns and verbs eliminate the need for adverbs and adjectives.

You can also eliminate meaningless phrases, like these:

  • In view of the fact that…
  • It is often the case that…
  • It may, however, be noted that…

Cut, cut, cut.

7. Write Topic Sentences

Readers expect the writer to lead them through an idea in a logical way. Topic sentences inform the reader of the subject of the sentence, organize ideas, and provide analysis. They should appear at the beginning of the paragraph. The topic sentence contains the topic of the paragraph and has a main point. The rest of the paragraph should have supporting details and evidence to support the main point of the paragraph.

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog because he or she wanted to prove that foxes could jump higher than people previously thought.” Now the sentence does more than just describe an action; it makes an actual argument. The rest of the paragraph, then, should offer some details and evidence to support the main point.

8. Remove Waffling and Weak Language

Many academic writers undercut the power of their arguments when they use weak language. Novice writers often surround their arguments with words like these:

  • may
  • might
  • suggest
  • feel
  • I would...

“I would like to argue that the quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog may suggest that…” Nope. Be brave. Be bold. Cut out weak language.

9. Proofread.

All writers struggle with proofreading their own work. The writer, knowing what he or she intends to say, mentally auto-corrects errors. Reading out loud often helps, as reading at the speed of one’s voice forces the writer to slow down and consider all of the words. Or, alternatively, use an editor or trusted person to proofread your work.

10. When in Doubt, Look It Up

Language evolves at a rapid pace and people discover new uses for words all the time. Style guides provide us with uniform rules for usage, punctuation, and citation. I advise writers to look up any usage cases they don’t know by heart. Is it 100 or one hundred? One half or one-half? The President of the United States or the president of the United States? Get a style guide, learn it, and use it.