Guide to the Archives


Check to see if photography is allowed in the archive. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

While some of us are lucky to have digitized access to all the sources we need, and can search them online from the convenience of home or an air-conditioned office, many more will be heading out to the archives this summer. Some archives, like the British National Archives/Public Records Office, are pristine and equipped with amenities like climate control, a snack bar, secure lockers for storage, and an internet café. Others consist of little more than a stack of unorganized papers inside of a sweltering one-room shack without electricity or running water.

Fortunately, most fall somewhere in between, and you can have a successful research trip with some beforehand preparation. There are many comprehensive lists of archival tips available online, so below I will list a few that tend to be neglected or underemphasized.

  1. Every archive has different rules regarding photography, photocopying, and what you may or may not bring into the document room with you. Find out beforehand so you can best formulate a plan of attack. There’s nothing worse than buying a new camera only to find out that photography is not allowed, or depending on typed transcription only to discover that computers are banned from the room.
  2. Be aware of hidden costs. Many archives are free to use, but this varies and some charge a small fee to join, an additional fee to use a camera, and most charge above-average rates for photocopies. In addition, some may charge for parking, for storing your belongings not allowed in the documents room, or for the rental of tools like dust masks, gloves, pencils, magnifying glasses, etc.
  3. Find out beforehand the names of archivists working there and make it a point to introduce yourself. They know much more than you ever will about what is in their archive and a polite word can save you a lot of time or help you find something you overlooked. The importance of this varies by country, and in some places, can literally be the difference between being allowed to see what you came to see, and being denied access.
  4. If you come across images, find out before you leave how to obtain copyrights for them for inclusion in your next book. It may not be possible to do this once you leave, and you’ll regret it forever. (Just ask my committee…)
  5. If one of the document/s you need is/are currently in use, try to be excited instead of annoyed. If you can find the person working in the same collection of documents as you, make it a point to speak with them (just not in the documents room). Get to know their project so you can keep them in mind for future panels or joint projects. Ask them what they have seen regarding your topic while working in the collection. It’s amazing what someone else’s fresh perspective on a topic close to yours will do for the way you think about your documents. If they are affable, you may want to work out the most efficient system for sharing the documents so no one has to be inconvenienced.

Feel free to add anything else you can think of, or to share anecdotes of you archival experience below.

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5 Responses to “Guide to the Archives”

  1. Justin Bengry Says:

    Great piece. These kinds of tips and advice are so important since we’re never really taught how to use an archive. It’s just left up to us to figure it all out on the spot by trial and error. I know I’ve pissed off numerous archivists in that process!

    I especially appreciate your points on digital photography. As it is increasingly becoming a standard in the field, many are not prepared for archives and collections that don’t allow photography. Of course places like the UK National Archives are wonderful in this regard.

  2. Shane Landrum Says:

    I’ve been thinking for a while about about digital-camera work at archives and about managing the images we bring back with us. I wrote a guide to hacking the short archival research trip, and more detailed pieces about image naming for easy sorting and tagging and filing images.

    I think that digital-camera methods are exciting, but they also pose a interesting methodological challenge for many early-career historians because the tools we need for searching, annotating, and cataloging these images haven’t been invented yet. (Or in some cases they have, but they’re used as specialty tools by commercial photographers or library/archives professionals and are quite time-consuming to learn.) I’d love to hear from historians and digital-humanities scholars who are interested in talking about what those ideal tools, not yet invented, might help us accomplish.

    • Angela Sutton Says:

      Hi Shane, Thanks for your great comment.

      I love the piece about image naming– I’ve been doing it the Luddite way of leaving a scrap of paper with a number in the corner of the document before I photograph it and then writing out a table of contents as I go so that I have a list of everything I’ve taken a picture of and so that everything has its place, but it isn’t the quickest or most efficient.

      May I point you to another article on here that discusses the digital humanities? Compass Summary- Digital Humanities

  3. adamarenson Says:

    An important topic. The American Historical Association is working to collect archive-specific information via

    In terms of tagging and sorting, I have worked with multiple files open:

    1) a general project journal, which lists where I am each day and what I view;
    2) an archive-based Word file, with a list of what I have seen and what I want to see;
    3) a Word file for each collection, where I jot down notes about whatever I see, using my keywords “CIVWAR WOMN letter from May 14 1865 Sally to Amy; photoed / CIVWAR WOMN DENT receipt for Sally’s dentist May 1866 not photoed”;
    and then
    4) the images themselves, in a folder named by archive, with subfolders for each collection, and then dumping the relevant images in those subfolders.
    Thus I don’t take the time to put in metadata (or even titles, often) for the images until I come back to use them; I have about 10,000 images from the first book project, so I rely on the archive- and source-based folders, and the date-time system from my project journal as a backup — to find what I need, based on the keyworded notes.

    Research process is so idiosyncratic, but it is crucial to talk about…

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