3 Tips to Prepare You for Archival Research

I wasn’t always an archivist. If you’d told me three years ago that today I’d be sitting in a special collections library, processing archival papers, and preparing for my last semester of grad school, I would have laughed. Like this perhaps:

And though I won’t bore you with the story of how I became an archivist (this week, anyhow), I’m not yet far enough into the world of folders and finding aids to have forgotten how confusing archives can seem to outsiders. So this week I am sharing three tips, from my own experience as an archivist and as a researcher, for archival research.

1. Have a short, clear list of materials you want to see – even if you’re not sure what you want to see!

For many of us in the humanities and social sciences, research involves a good deal of wandering. As ideas coalesce in our minds, we page through notebooks, newspapers, journals, photo albums – all to get a sense of what materials are out there and how our ideas fit into the larger scheme of things. Unfortunately, most archives aren’t set up for wandering. Our stacks are closed, our containers opaque. We need the names of collections or other record groups you want to see. Think of it like booking a flight: You’re free to wander the city once you get there, but the airline can’t give you a ticket unless you give them a destination.

I understand how tough this can be. I conducted preliminary research in quite a few archives this summer, each time with only a vague sense of what I was looking for. At the same time, I was an intern in a large national archive and I understood that an archives’ holdings might be massive, or stored off-site, and so it’s impossible for the archivists to wander the stacks on your behalf. I felt stuck between the realities of research and the pragmatics of archival practice. All the same, I got the best results by starting off with a concrete list of 3-5 boxes I wanted to see.

And on the topic of requests: Make sure your request for materials includes the collection name and box number. Some archival collections have hundreds, if not thousands of boxes, and the archivist is unlikely to have supernatural knowledge of which boxes are of interest to you.

I know at this point you’re probably worried. What if the materials you select aren’t what you need? In fact, this is the norm rather than the exception. It’s rare a researcher opens a box, pulls out the first folder, and exclaims, “I’ve found it!” Archival research takes time. Archivists know this. We’re happy to help; we just need to know where to start.

2. Talk to the archivist.

We get it. Academia is a wasteland of scarcity and you want to be the first person to prove Gertrude Stein took two lumps of sugar in her tea, not one. When the archivist asks you about your project,  you shuffle papers around and get nervous. Will the archivist broadcast your research to everyone else in the room? Is this the moment an evil, tenured doppelgänger steals your work?

Hint: Disguising yourself for a visit to the archives will result in more questions from the archivist, not less.

The truth is that archivists discuss their ethical obligations to researchers frequently and in-depth. Most archivists believe it is wrong to share information on your research without your express consent. If you’re unsure where the archivist or institution stands on these matters, ask – and ask if they have a printed privacy policy you can keep for your own records. Before treating the archivist like a walking information leak, find out if the paranoia is warranted.

Archivists’ trustworthiness aside, it’s easier for us to help you find relevant materials if we understand your project. So, let’s say you’re on the hunt to prove the two lump hypothesis. You arrive at the archives, cagey and shrouded in mystery. You request all the Stein papers, the Toklas papers, and a Virginia Woolf photo album to throw others off the trail. After days of looking for evidence in your favor, you return to your office dejected. If only you’d talked to the archivist you might have known that the archive holds the Surreal Sips Tea Company records – including information on literary celebrity advertisement ideas. Astonishing.

Archivists spend each day learning about their repository’s holdings. Sure, they might not be able to name every collection but over time they’ve learned how collections connect to one another – often in surprising or unpredictable ways. If you describe your research to us and help us understand your goals for your time in the archives, we can point you to resources that online searches might miss.

(And based on this poem, the two lump hypothesis seems reasonable.)

3. Don’t judge a record by its record-ness.

Archives are complicated places. Materials from various individuals, businesses, government agencies, and collecting projects often stream into one archival repository. Those materials are then sorted, arranged, and described – often based on a combination of archival standards and local habit. A single collection can represent many entities, organizations, and initiatives which may have worked collaboratively or antagonistically. How records came to us, how they relate to one another, and how archivists have shaped or rearranged collections are important things to know. It might seem like Gertrude kept her correspondence in alphabetical order, but it’s more likely an archivist rearranged it for your ease. Maybe the correspondence was gleaned from smaller collections, to help create a more cohesive, complete resource on Gertrude’s life. Archival records have complicated lives of their own.

I’m something of an archives agnostic: I don’t necessarily believe archives can tell us the truth about history, or provide definitive proof of how things happened- but I do believe they can tell us compelling stories which are as important as ‘the facts.’ Sometimes those stories are told by what an archive doesn’t have, or how it doesn’t describe materials. By talking to the archivist about the materials you are researching, looking at the finding aid, and comparing holdings at other repositories, you can often gain a more nuanced understanding of the materials in front of you. Surprises await when you follow the story of archival materials, rather than treating them as mere evidence of tales told elsewhere.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s