How to start archival research

How to start archival research

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

Practical problems and practical responses

1.  A beginner’s mistake is to rush in the door and (try to) replicate an archive and its contents, by digitally photographing everything and reading little or nothing. Indeed, sometimes beginning researchers Z or Y have been heard to say that they really don’t have time to read anything, it all has to be copied so they can work on it at home later. But they don’t, because all they’ve done is to defer the problem of how to start. This is that there is a lot of stuff, most of it not seeming to be very relevant, so what on earth should be done with it? This is a practical problem (yes, of course it has theoretical, analytical and interpretational aspects, but the practical ones come first) and so the following practical steps are helpful:

The practical beginning activities

2.1  Do some intensive background reading before you go anywhere near an archive and its collections. From this, make lists of events, people’s names, organisations and so on, so you can use these to spot things in archive documents when you start looking at them. You will probably also come across references in footnotes in your reading made to particular collections or documents that you might be interested in. Keep detailed notes on these items. Choose your archive and collection/s accordingly.

2.2.  Work out in advance how much time you think you will need to work in the archive and the collection or collections you’re interested in. Take into account that you need time to become familiar with how an archive works, and you also need to estimate how much time it will take to find and read things. So add some days onto your estimate. Also take into account that you may need to go more than once to an archive that holds particularly relevant material. Plan for this, or conceive an alternative strategy if it is really not possible.

forhowto1IMG_03432.3  The first thing to do on arriving in an archive is to introduce yourself to one of the archivists or librarians. If you haven’t already done this by email, be prepared to tell them very briefly – just a sentence – what you are interested in, and about how long you will be working there.


2.4  Don’t plunge into a collection and start looking at it yet! The next thing to do is to ask for and then read the relevant finding aids – often called inventories – that an archive has, so you get a good idea of the kinds of things it has in it. Also, you will need to find where these are kept, and for this you’ll need to talk to one of the archive staff again. These things will get you familiar with how an archive works at a basic level and also help in you establishing a working relationship with the people employed there. Once you have found the reading aids, as well as reading them make some brief notes on them.

2.5  Whatever you read, whether it is these finding aids or the archive documents in collections, make sure that you record for each and every item you handle what is called its ‘meta-data’. Put simply, this is its referencing information, and it should include the name of the archive, the name and probably also the number of the particular collection, and the folio or other number that is often (if not invariably) assigned to particular items within a collection. Don’t be tempted to put off doing this because you will soon lose track, and then it will become difficult to retrieve things that you may later realise are relevant and want to do more work on.

2.6  By this stage, you will have a list of things that the archive contains that are interesting and/or relevant to you. At step 2 when estimating timings, make sure that time is has been budgeted to look through and skim-read some parts of these ‘sort of relevant’ collections and make notes on your computer or in a notebook about them. Treat this as a learning exercise, in two respects. One is that you will learn how to order things from the stacks by providing the correct information, so you get the material that you want. The other is that you will become familiar with a range of collections that are connected in some overall way with your particular concerns, but without this being too consequential for the final results of your research visit.

2.7  Look at a number of different parts of any collection that you ask to be retrieved from the stacks. Read these documents – do not succumb to just photographing them, for unless you do read things you will learn precisely nothing, whereas the point is to gain broad familiarity with the range of material that a collection contains. And as well as reading them, also write some brief overall notes about what you have done once you finish. Think in general terms here: what does the collection have in it, how big is it, what kinds of topics does it deal with, what if anything might be relevant to some aspect of your own interests?

2.8  Once this has been done on one or two collections you are ‘sort of’ interested in, it is time to start working on a collection that you know is directly relevant. But initially, adopt the same approach. That is, do not replicate the archive! Do not photograph at this stage! Read the material and do so promiscuously, by looking at things that take your eye and getting an overall sense of what is going on. And of course, make notes on this. It’s actually much better for people to have their initial archive research encounters somewhere where photography is forbidden. Then they have to read, in this promiscuous skim-reading sense, and go through the struggle of making some sense of what they’re reading and what it all means. Don’t worry about missing things or getting it wrong, because this is a beginning stage, and once you have gained an overall familiarity with some of the general features of the collection, then the time comes to go back and to look at its contents in more detail.

2.9   Record basic information about everything you do, as you do it. To do this, open a new word processing file for each collection you work on. Make sure all the relevant meta-data is recorded at the top of the file. Also record meta-data and brief info for all individual items that you read. These computer files are to enable you to keep orderly track of basic information, so you have the relevant meta-data to retrieve things again from an archive, and so that enough information has recorded to later jog your memory about content if this is needed.

2.10  Keep a research notebook, and on every day that you do archival research write even just a small amount about the puzzles and possibilities of the day’s work. This doesn’t have to be rocket science, it’s Blog35to get your mind thinking about what you have been reading in a more analytical way than is possible when carrying out tasks while working in the archive. Don’t be tempted to do this on loose sheets of paper, because these will quickly get lost; use hard-covered notebooks and it is best to write just on the right-hand pages, so the left-hand ones can be used for later additions. Make sure the entries are dated, but otherwise regarding content the sky is the limit. Puzzling in a notebook is a different kind of activity from writing descriptive notes on documents and collections in a computer file. The notebook can be a wild space where anything goes. The beginnings of analytical thinking are what happens in such notebook entries. And this is what the research is for, for thinking analytically about the stuff that has been encountered, and not returning home with 20,000 photographs of documents that haven’t been read from a collection which hasn’t been made sense of!

2.11.  Once what has been discussed here has been done, then photograph the most relevant of the finding aids and create a set of named files on your computer where you can download these. Alternatively, if you have an iPad or other tablet, you can download a scanning app and instead make a PDF of them. If neither is possible, ask if they can be photocopied.

What now?

3.1  These are the basic steps, and now working in earnest can start. What comes next? This involves looking in more detail and more precisely at collections and their contents. Please visit the other ‘How To…’ pages for information on how to do this.

Last updated: 20 May 2021