How to manage archival time

How to manage archival time

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

1. For many archival researchers, time is of the essence because of having little money and much to do in a given period of time, so days, hours and even minutes need to be managed productively. This typically involves people working in archives a distance away from their home-base, and doing so usually in a very intensive way of working because as much as possible needs to be done in the time available. For others, and not necessarily those who are working in or near their home-base, there may be a much more fragmented pattern of working in which their time is punctuated less by research activities and more by those of sociability or networking, involving many breaks in the working day.

2. These are different ways of organising time and activity during a period of archival research, and it is worth thinking about what the overall aim or goal for a research visit is and managing one’s time accordingly. These two ways of working achieve different things, and neither is necessarily better than the other – it all depends. My own research has mainly been ‘far away’ because on a different continent, as well as concerning ‘long ago’, about the result my time in archives has been organised in an intensive way I refer to as ‘extreme archiving’. This is a succession of very focused working days in an archive, repeated five (six if there is Saturday opening) days a week and for up to seven or eight weeks, but more usually six.

3. Something rather strange happens to time when doing archival research in this intensive way. Each minute, each hour, is as it should be. A box is opened, a document is read, some notes are written, and reading and writing about this occurs in an intertwined way which might be quicker (say, a telegram of 12 words) or slower (say, a letter of 14 densely written pages, or a typed speech of 49 pages), depending on the documents in question. Time over the working day goes past in measured units, this document and that, this thought and that. Each is dealt with in a considered, thought-full, way. One, then another, then another, then… And time passes in a slow and orderly way in these successive moments.

4. But this is not all there is to archival time when working intensively. Each bit of activity and the time it takes is ordinary and familiar, but what happens overall is very different. Each morning, with co-researchers we go into the reading room, request and collect boxes, sit down, then completely ignore each other because each of us becomes quickly locked into our own ‘world’ of archival working. We almost never speak – or rather whisper, for that is the rule – and really don’t want to because what we are reading is so incredibly engrossing. We start at 8, finish at 4.30 or 5pm (South African archives generally open early and close fairly early). ‘Have you had a good day?’, we politely inquirewhen collecting our bags. However, what is actually going through our minds is that we have little sense of any passing of time. Our day seems to have just started. Surely 9 hours can’t have gone by, surely no time worth speaking of has intervened between arriving and now leaving? But looking back later with computer files open and a notebook in hand, how much has happened, how much has been gone through!

5. There are some general points worth raising here.

6. It is likely to be helpful to decide on an overall strategy and aims for an archive visit in advance. And as part of this it should be recognised that if the concern is with producing as much productive research as possible in the given time, then ‘extreme archiving’ as described above will be the order of the day.

7. This requires immersion and deep concentration, for this is what enables gaining a sense of overall patterns and meanings in the documents being dealt with in the shortest time possible. Working in a more fragmentary way, of an hour here and an hour there with lengthy spaces between, makes it difficult although not impossible to gain this sense of how it all hangs together.

8. The immersion of ‘extreme archiving’ does some strange things with the researcher’s experience of time. On the one hand, time seems to slow down through the attentive focus on a succession of particular items of reading. On the other hand, it seems to have gone by in a flash once the researcher is no longer immersed in these intensive moments. Perspective can be restored after the event, through a process of reviewing the activities carried out, aided by looking at what has been recorded for the day in computer files and research notebook.

9. Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing about how perceptions of time may change in advance of carrying out archival research helps in the planning process, in the experience of the working day, and also in establishing a review process so that perspective and a sense of progress can be re-gained.

Last updated: 27 May 2021