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How to make the most of your trip to the archive

Archival research is something of a rite of passage for many individuals in many disparate fields. Admittedly, it can be something of a daunting task. What follows is carefully curated advice for making the most of your trip to an archive based upon the experiences of the crew here at the Librarianshipwreck who have had the privilege of working on multiple sides of this research process (archivist, librarian, researcher). As with all advice available on this site it is couched in erudite wisdom that you should follow at your own risk.


1) Before you physically visit an archive you should first determine whether or not it is worth your time (and the time of the staff at that archive) for you to show up there. To determine this, you should ask yourself the following question: “does this archive have material pertinent to my research?” If you answer in the affirmative, you should go to the archive. If you answer in the negative, you should not go to the archive. Yes, this is obvious, but better scholars than you have merrily walked into an archive asking to see material related to the war of 1812 only to be informed that this particular archive only has material pertaining to twentieth century artists. So, how are you to know if an archive is right for you? By doing research, of course! Before you go to do research at an archive you need to do preliminary research about the archive! Luckily for you, most of these details can now be found online. Thus, you can go to the archive’s website and search through the collections that they have, and once you find one that seems promising you can determine if there is material in it that is actually relevant. You can determine this by looking at the finding aid.

But wait, you ask, what is the finding aid?


2) A finding aid is akin to a table of contents or an index, except that it is for an archival collection instead of for a book. It consists of the following sections:

  • Creator – this usually refers to the person/organization from whence this material comes, in the case of religious institutions it may simply say “God” in this field.
  • Title – what the collection is called.
  • Dates – this specifies the years that are included in the collection, the range may also include comments like “undated” or “bulk dates.”
  • Abstract – most finding aids contain a small section in which the archivist is encouraged to create a work of abstract art representing the collection as a whole, you will find that here. It may not make sense to you.
  • Languages – tells you the languages that are used in the collection. You might not speak some of these languages.
  • Quantity – how much stuff is in the collection. Often this is listed in terms of “linear feet” denoting how many feet of shelf space a collection takes up. It may also refer to the “feats” that you may be expected to complete before you can access this collection.
  • Biographical Note – provides a brief biography about the person/institution.
  • Scope and Content Note – provides a brief overview of the types of material in the collection. While many archival collections are mainly filled with paper, some collections also include photographs, textiles, moving image film, ephemera, and ancient curses.
  • Arrangement – provides you with an overview of where in the collection certain things are.
  • Access and Use – this is the section where you will be told that you are not actually permitted to see this collection.
  • Related Material – this is where you will find the archival collection’s family tree, it will tell you which boxes and folders are its cousins, siblings, and children. This can be useful for finding other useful material at the archive.
  • Separated Material – sometimes, for whatever reason, an archival collection decides to get a divorce, this is the section that will tell you what went where.
  • Preferred Citation – Did you know that if you incorrectly cite an archival collection that the library enforcement division will show up at your school/job/hermitage and revoke your degree? Now you know! Pay attention to this section.
  • Processing Information – this is where the archivist has a chance to recount the tale of woe which was involved in arranging this collection. These sections would make Kafka shudder.
  • Access Points – Keywords for this collection.
  • Container List – this will provide you with a box by box and a folder by folder breakdown of what is in the collection.


3) Once you find the materials you want in the collection you are ready to go! But it is probably worth contacting the archive in advance. Many archival collections are actually held offsite, meaning that it takes the archive several days to actually get the material to the reading room. If you just show up unannounced and say “I want to see this collection” and the archivist says “it’ll take us 48 hours to get that material here” and you say “but I have to be in Antarctica in 36 hours” and they say “I’m not permitted to use the time machine for something this banal” – well, the result will just be that all parties are frustrated. It is always advisable (always!) to contact the archive at least a week before your planned arrival to let them know what you would like to see.


4) But wait, you ask, what happens if I ignore the above advice and just show up at the archive and then throw a fit when the material I want to see isn’t available?

This will happen to you:


5) The reading rooms at most archives will provide you with some of the basic tools that are necessary to support you as you go about your research. Thus, you do not need to bring your own:

  • Pencils
  • Scrap paper
  • Book cradle
  • Creepy paintings that watch your every move
  • Paperclips
  • Ruler
  • Draconian sets of rules and regulations
  • Magnifying glass
  • Weighted snakes
  • Ghosts
  • White gloves
  • Wi-Fi
  • Crushing sense of self-doubt
  • Chair

However, the reading room will not provide you with everything. Thus, if you think that you will need it, you will want to bring your own:

  • Laptop
  • Notebook
  • Camera
  • Broadsword
  • IT staff
  • Cardigan
  • Religious icon to repel ghosts
  • Ear plugs
  • Protocol droid
  • Headphones
  • Microfilm machine


6) This seems as good a time as any to provide you with what is, perhaps, the most important single piece of advice in all of this: be nice to the library staff. Seriously. Most of the staff at most libraries will be quite friendly and eager to help you, and most of the staff members that aren’t helpful are probably just recovering from a recent bout of demonic possession (that happens surprisingly often). If you want your research visit to be a success: don’t be a jerk. For what it’s worth “don’t be a jerk” is pretty good advice for when you aren’t in the library. The library staff is in the possession of all manner of secret knowledge about the collections – and here “secret knowledge” is actually meant quite seriously. If you’re on good terms with the library staff they can be your greatest allies. If you’re on bad terms with the library staff…well…don’t be on bad terms with the library staff.


7) Once you arrive at the archive and after you (politely!) greet the library staff you will likely be presented with your first box of material. Every institution will have slightly different criteria for how material is supposed to be used, you will be expected to abide by the rules. Here is what a fairly standard set of handling guidelines will look like:

  • You’ll be given one box at a time
  • Only take one folder out of the box at a time
  • Keep the folder flat on the desk in front of you
  • Keep everything in the original order
  • When you finish with a folder put it back exactly where it came from
  • Do not, under any circumstances, remove any material from the folders


8) But wait, you ask, what happens if I don’t abide by those instructions?

This will happen to you:


9) The actual research process is of course a highly personalized matter. The procedure for going through archival material that works best for you may not work best for someone else. Nevertheless, it is worth going in with some sort of plan for tackling the archival collection. It may well be that you are requesting numerous boxes in which you want to see quite a few folders. You should think of how you’re going to get through all of that material before you arrive. And you should recognize that this process can be quite time consuming. Make sure that you are taking close and careful notes, and that you are including information in those notes that will ensure that you’ll be able to properly cite this particular document at a later date. There are many apps and other sorts of programs that people make use of to keep track of their notes and so forth and one of those could well be of assistance to you; however, it is advisable for you to have experimented with that program before arriving at the archive. After all, your research time is limited and you want to make sure that you are able to make good use of your time – and fiddling around with a new app is probably not the best use of time.


10) Given the time pressure that many find themselves wrestling with while conducting archival research it is common for researchers to decide that they are going to use their time to take digital photos of the archival material instead of actually reading through it. There is a clear logic to this as it means that the researcher will have much more time to go through all of the material in the comfort of their own (non-haunted) home. When taking photos you should make sure that there is something in the photo that will help you keep track of the folder and box from whence the document being photographed came – again, you can’t be too careful with your citations! And you should periodically stop to review your photos – it doesn’t do you much good if you get home only to realize that all of your pictures are too blurry to read. Granted, taking pictures of every page in a folder can be a waste of time, and may well demonstrate a lack of a plan as opposed to a well thought out plan. In order for taking photos to be useful you need to decide what you want to take photos of first. Nevertheless, if you are going to take pictures it is absolutely imperative that you first receive authorization from the library staff. You should not just assume that you have permission to take pictures.


11) But wait, you ask, what happens if I take digital photographs without first receiving permission?

This will happen to you:

12) Once you have finished looking through your archival material you should return it to the library staff. They will likely ask if you had a productive visit. Hopefully, if you have carefully followed the above advice, you will be able to answer in the affirmative.


Other Useful Advice!

How not to ruin a book

What to do if the Wi-Fi goes out at the Library

How to Sleep in the Library

How to grade assignments in the library

How Not to Be Seen while working in the library


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “How to make the most of your trip to the archive

  1. Angry Archivist
    March 24, 2017

    Bring your own damn pencils!

    • schammond
      May 8, 2017

      and paper; library and archives are not renowned for being so awash with cash they give free stuff away all the time.

  2. Pingback: How to Reserve a Seat in a Library | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: You can do this (really) – advice for new graduate students | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2017 by in Archives, Education, Higher Education, History, Humor, Librarianship, Libraries and tagged , , , , , .

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