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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…)
- 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.