Finishing an archival research project

How to finish an archival research project

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to finish an archival research project’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Introduction: when the point comes

1.1   There comes a point in a research project – all projects, whether small or big, whether concerned with the past or the present, whether quantitative or qualitative – when they reach a stage of no longer being beginning or proceeding, but are heading towards completion. Exactly when this occurs will depend on a particular project, but it always happens, and when it does it can be used to take stock, to re-set priorities, to ensure that absences and loose ends are dealt with, to forward writing and publication plans, and generally to ensure finishing in good order with major goals met. It should be seen as providing an opportunity, then, rather than imposing a burden.

1.2   It can appear burdensome because recognising that a completion stage has been arrived at means that a countdown clock has started to tick away the remaining months or weeks. It means that the researcher or research team becomes newly aware of having to come up with the goods that were promised (perhaps to oneself, perhaps to a thesis supervisor, perhaps to a funding organisation, perhaps to a publisher) before the project had started. Panic, burying one’s head in the sand, diversionary tactics, can be responses.

1.3   However, reaching this point should instead be seen in opportunity terms because no project finishes well by accident. There is no magic involved! It instead takes mundane and achievable things like forethought, planning, establishing feasible priorities, establishing and keeping to a realistic timetable, and generally keeping on top of ensuring that the desired final outcomes or goals for a project are achieved. Realising that a completion stage has been arrived at means that these things can be put into operation in good order at a point when there is still sufficient time to repair any problems.

1.4   This is the sensible theory of how to conclude a project in good order. But what happens in practice and how do things really pan out? This will be discussed below both in general terms and also in relation to the Whites Writing Whiteness project, while similar processes took place regarding the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and the research publications associated with it.

1.5   The WWW project how a a delayed completion date because of structural factors affecting when the project actually started. This was negotiated at a very early stage, when the project was still beginning but with the complications of professional commitments having overwhelmed abstract dates. This is in itself a demonstration of the practical benefits of building in a rolling ‘taking stock’ set of activities, because re-negotiating dates with funders, with university authorities and so on takes time and usually there are formal dates by which such things need to be done.

1.6   What now follows takes for granted this initial re-negotiation of dates. Subsequently a detailed review took place two years in and one year before the completion date, with the overall goal of completing the WWW project in good order with all major priorities having been fulfilled by the end of the period. An earlier similar review process was carried out the year before, which resulted in a re-assessment of what could be done in the time-frame available, and what the greatest priorities should be.

1.7   The four sections below provide a simple guide to carrying out an ending process for an archival project. The things suggested can be easily put into practice if dealt with in a methodical and practical way. But life and research are frequently not simple and the complications that can arise need to be reckoned with rather than being allowed to overwhelm a project. Both the basic process, and complications and some practical responses in relation to WWW research, are discussed below in ways that are hopefully transferable to other projects.

2. Taking stock: overviewing

2.1   This is a detailed process of overviewing the project research that was in the original proposal, the progress to date, priorities for completion in the remaining time, time-planning the remaining analysis of research materials, and furthering writing and publication plans. The importance of building in an ongoing review process has been discussed in other ‘how to’ pages. Incremental reviews of research activity, for instance, were situated as a helpful part of the archival working day, in enabling the ongoing accumulation of knowledge to be made use of, absences and loose ends to be spotted and repaired, puzzles and issues to be thought about, and for brief written reflections on these matters to be made at regular intervals. And broader overviewing activities should be carried out at regular junctures in the life of a project, as indicated above was done at one year intervals.

2.2   So how have these ideas panned out in relation to the WWW project? At the end of year 2, two days were spent taking detailed stock of work done on all the archive collections that the WWW project has an interest in, both in South Africa and those located elsewhere, principally in the UK. This involved going through each collection in detail, concerning whether work had been started or not, any progress made, including what is nearly completed or fully completed. Lists were made of these with a set of tick boxes so that carrying out different parts of the process could be checked off. These lists were spare and simple – each collection or other work activity was separately listed, in a priority order, and tasks were realistically broken down.

2.3   The result was a complete overview of project activity.  This was very helpful in a number of respects. Firstly, it provided precise detailed information about what still needed to be done. Secondly, it also led to priorities in workloads being re-visited and more realistically identified. Thirdly, it indicated that things could be finished in the time allocated.

2.4   The best laid plans. This worked well for a period, but then the re-specified priorities became rather lost in the minutiae of the everyday detail of research activities, also by illnesses and job changes. Even more consequentially, they were overtaken by wider events. This was that early in 2016 political events connected with the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall campaigns led to university closures across South Africa, with the result that there was an accompanying difficulty in planning further WWW research visits because access to relevant collections could not be guaranteed. Succinctly, planned research visits to complete data collection on a number of important South African collections had to be put on ice, with other activities being re-prioritised as a result.

2.5   Further overviews then followed, at the 6, 3 and 1 months to go stages. At all of the reviews stages, there was some replanning of priorities and scaling down of overly-high expectations.

3. Re/planning priorities

3.1   Setting research priorities can be done in an abstract way – this is in effect what happens when writing a research design for a funding application or a higher degree proposal. But it is rare that research in practice turns out to be exactly the same as research in abstract proposal terms. Overviewing a project in progress has to grapple with realities on the ground and what actually can and cannot be done in the way and also in the time that was initially specified. Taking stock in this way often leads to priorities being revisited and re-worked, and if this is the case then the grounded reasons for this should be documented as part of the overviewing process.

3.2   In relation to WWW, taking stock through overviewing the entire range of projects activities led to a reassessment of future priorities. In particular it led to a narrowing of these, for some research collections turned out to be considerably larger and more time-consuming than was appreciated at the outset, and also by the overviewing stage it had become apparent that these large family connections were clustered, being mainly produced by English-speakers rather than being more broadly generated across the white populations of South Africa. There are good reasons for this, connected with functional literacy levels, the character of different languages, and factors connected with archiving policies in the political context of nationalism in the 1920s and 30s. More specifically, as well as reassessing and reordering priorities, a work programme was instituted around the reconfigured priorities, with the completion of data preparation for a number of collections becoming number one in the list of priorities. This involved the lengthy and often eye-watering activities that compose ‘cleaning’ data, to make sure all essential information is complete, there are no glaring mistakes, and everything is in a form that can be successfully transferred into the project’s VRE, its bespoke virtual research environment and tools for aiding data analysis. Fully cleaned data files for a number of collections were as a result delivered to HRIOnline within the new time-frame.

3.3   At this point,  the plan was to return to South Africa for an extended period in early 2016, to complete three further large collections, and to identify and start work on two others. This was also the point at which WWW’s best laid plans were stymied by the political events noted above.

3.4   As a result, another more schematic review was then done, and new medium-term priorities to suit these changed circumstances were decided on. These were: preparing materials for the user interface for when the project dataset is published by HRIOnline, analysis of already completed data, and using this to write things for publication sooner, rather than some months later as originally planned. Relatedly, preliminary thinking about a monograph on social change using South Africa over 200 years of whites writing whiteness was also set in motion at this point, and was completed in later 2017.

4. Establishing a rolling timetable for completing priorities

4.1   As the above discussion indicates, establishing a timetable for completion purposes requires identifying specific pieces of work connected with each of the re-established priorities that can be completed and have a line drawn under them. Apart from other benefits, doing this is heartening because a checklist can be made and items ticked off it, which provides a sense of things progressing rather than feeling that the amount of work still to be done is insuperably large or difficult. This timetable should be a rolling one that is periodically re-visited, for as the completion stage progresses the items on the list will change when some work is finalised and other items come onto the agenda.

4.2   For the WWW project, continuing external political events over 2015 and 2016 compelled establishing a different kind of medium-term timetable to cope with these circumstances. This is not organised around research visits as earlier planned, but around preparation of components of the user interface, analysing data from some specific collections rather than waiting to analyse across more collections using the project’s VRE, and writing a number of items for publication. Planning and producing a monograph from the research was a component of this latter.

4.3   Relatedly, it was also necessary to draw a line through some interesting sub-projects as ‘nice but non-necessary’ given priorities and what is feasible, and also think hard about how in the remaining time to carry out work on some large family collections which has not yet been started, as and when access becomes less problematic.

4.4   A further complication arose concerning HRIOnline, in the form of a major cyber attack on its collections and its needs to reorganise its priorities. This led to further consequential delays.

5. Dovetailing research practicalities with writing plans

5.1   Most archival and other research projects are expected to result in a substantial written product, such as a PhD or Masters thesis, journal articles, book chapters and so on. At the same time, the practicalities of carrying out research often take on a momentum of their own and it is easy to become immersed in the minutiae and, if not lose sight of the intended written outputs, then for these to be seen as an end product rather than ways of marking the process. To guard against this, in overviewing, and in particular in planning and re-visiting priorities, it is important to build into this the analysis of whatever the data of the project consists of, and producing a number of pieces of writing about this.

5.2   In relation to WWW, much of the above discussion has concerned the nitty-gritty of collecting archival data, checking it, and finalising the resultant datasets (one per collection) to send to HRI at the University of Sheffield, the technical partner for the Whites Writing Whiteness project as it was for the Olive Schreiner Letters Online, and the kind of routine and also the occurrence of happenstance major events that have impacted on planning and priorities. Alongside this, five or six journal articles for completion by the end-date of the project were initially planned, with a number of others and also the monograph referred to above to follow.

5.3   However, due to the external events already noted, some aspects of data collection and also publication of the whole dataset have not yet been possible, and as a consequence some of the planned analysis of data has obviously not been possible either. As a result, in the 2016 ‘taking stock’ and overviewing activities, some other kinds of publication and writing were identified and these were put into process. In particular, this led to the publication of research monograph a year in advance of its planned date, but a delay in completing some planned research articles. It all looks orderly, but there have been complications beneath the surface.

6. Concluding

6.1   The emphasis in the discussion above has been on concluding an archival research project in good order and with revised priorities fulfilled. Keeping tabs on how research unfolds, re-visiting priorities because of circumstances, building in feasible measures of progress and so on does not require complicated software. It can be done without fuss using the four headings of taking stock, re/ planning priorities, establishing a rolling timetable and dovetailing research practicalities with writing, backed by methodical thinking, some checklists and to-do lists.

6.2   The result can sometimes seem worrying, but it prevents greater worry further on, at the end of the process!

Last updated: 27 May 2021