Working in the Archives

Work in the archives – it’s something historians will do at some point in their career. Even with the increasing number of documents becoming available in digital formats, there is still so much material that remains tucked away in individual archives. Recently, I began a one-month fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and while this is not the first archival research trip I’ve done, this is still a process that takes time to adapt to. Beginning this most recent trip, I’ve been reminded of all the little details that go into the preparation process. I have also been thinking back on how frustrating it was for me to learn this process from the outset. Naturally, I talked to faculty members about such trips, but I remember wishing someone would just tell me what to expect.

Unfortunately, that is difficult to do. People who made such research trips before told me this, but I was dissatisfied with the information. I wanted to know what it was like to walk into an archive and work with original documents. There were no clear guidelines, but I will try to convey some of the details I now know here.

Docs - NA UK
Working with some documents at the UK National Archives.

First: Every archive/library/special collections, etc. is different. Not simply in the sense that they are located in different areas or have different materials, but each place has its own way of doing things. It is important to familiarize yourself with these details before you leave. Does an archive allow photography? When is the last call to submit documents? What exactly can you carry with you into the reading room? Each place should have this information available online, but if you can’t find it, then give them a call. It is better to be prepared than caught off guard.

For example, in my first major research trip I visited four archives in London, and each place had different requirements before I would be allowed to work there. Every place will require some form of identification, but make sure you have the right kind (this should be stated on the archive’s website). Some places, like the UK National Archives, required two forms of identification, other places only required one. Some places, they will take your picture and print out an I.D. card that you have to use to scan your way in and out of the reading room, other places, like Lambeth Palace Library, require you bring a passport-style photo with you (to attach to your library I.D. card).

The National Archives, UK (aka, Kew or PRO, Public Record Office).

So, each place has its own way of doing things, and for a number of procedures, you simply have to learn as you go. Also, don’t feel embarrassed if you feel confused or lost! My first day at the UK National Archives was the first time I worked at an archive, period. I was wandering around unsure of where to go when a security guard asked, “First time here?” It was pretty obvious, but that was ok. Archivists, reference librarians, and archival security guards are very nice people who can help you  navigate the building, the process of requesting materials, etc.

Second: Know what you are going for. This isn’t as crucial as making sure you have the right materials to enter the archive, but it helps to have a good idea of what you want to request. Browse the archive’s catalog, if it is online, and build a list of materials you wish to look at while there. It is possible you will have to request these materials a few days in advance, so, again, get in touch with the archivists and learn the procedure.

Organizing this information can be tricky, and you will have to find what works best for you. For me, I like to have a Word file that lists all the materials I plan to request.

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Here are two examples.

This way I know what I want to look at, what form it is available in, and roughly how big the collection is before I even get started. As I request and send back the materials, I strike through the call number so I know I don’t have to request it again. When you really begin to work through these documents, it becomes difficult to keep track of what you have and have not looked at.

For each archive, I also set up a separate file simply for taking notes. The graduate advisor in our department, and one of my committee members, suggested doing this, and it is a truly excellent idea. Keep that file up the entire time you are there to jot down any notes, questions, quotes, or any other details that may be useful to you later. It’s an easy way to help you keep track of a lot of information.

My work station at the Kew. These tables had tripods built-in for cameras. This was very handy, but also not a common option at other archives.

FinallyDress and act professionally. This is a personal point for me, but I think it is an important one. You are at an archive to work, so dress accordingly. That being said, I have noticed people wearing jeans and t-shirts at almost every place I’ve worked at so far, and it is rarely a big deal. The archives certainly won’t turn you away (though double-check that point on their website just in case). It has been my impression that most people working at archives tend to dress in a professional manner, and I prefer to match that standard. Bring a light sweater or pull over with you – reading rooms can get pretty chilly after you have been in there for several hours. Each archive typically offers lockers to stow away bags, computer cases, and other materials not allowed in the reading room, so you can keep the sweater there if you don’t need it. I learned rather quickly that it is better to have that option available.

Working at The Wellcome Library, London.

Ultimately, a trip to the archives is a wonderful experience. It can be tedious at times, sifting through page after page of a collection, just hoping something that applies to your project will appear. However, it can also be remarkably exciting. You get the opportunity to look at the remnants of lives, in some cases, long ended. You can read a letter from an 18th century merchant apologizing to a client for losing their purchased goods because of a pirate attack, or the first impressions of the “New World” by bewildered European explorers.

So have fun, be prepared, and good luck!

This is the advice of a young historian who is still learning the ropes, so if anyone else has their own piece of advice for archival research trips, please share them in the comments!


4 thoughts on “Working in the Archives

  1. Very nice! I loved the archival research for my MA thesis. Found several “juicy” documents by accident or that had been misplaced at some point! Lol. Since my dissertation is on film, cultural, and intellectual history – not doing any archival stuff now. Your post makes me miss them! 🙂


  2. Great advice! I definitely agree about bringing a sweater—most libraries/archives are kept chilly to provide the best environment for their materials. When I did research in the special collections at Princeton, however, I kept committing small sweater-related sins—one day I had walked to the library and was warm, so I took the sweater off in the locker area and planned to carry it over my arm into the reading room. Turns out that’s not allowed; the librarians need to see that you’re not sneaking something in or out under the fabric. I wore the sweater in, then immediately took it off and draped it over the back of my chair, which was fine. Another day, my sweater had a zipper on the front, and the librarian told me I couldn’t wear it unless it was zipped up to my chin because she was afraid it might snag on one of the materials I was looking at. These are both tiny things, but neither of them ever occurred to me until they happened!


  3. Speaking of hidden gems, while in the Nat’l Archives in College Park, I saw a confidential memo dated around the end of WWI. by a State Dept. person in France who didn’t trust the French export numbers and took it upon himself to gather up shipping invoices for four different products (walnuts, calf hides, a certain kind of paper, and something else) and added them up, comparing them to the official French numbers. They were far, far off. He says in his report that it is a standing joke that the French numbers are compiled by the janitors! He ends by saying, “I do not trust the French export numbers.”


  4. Excellent points and some very good tips. One more to add: Be sure to take full advantage of all the finding-aids, calendars, etc. that have been put together over the years. The classic ones are the Calendars of State Papers (for state papers in the National Archives UK) and the Historical Manuscripts Commission volumes, but there are many more. A lot of them are available here:
    But there are many more many that are off-line which can be found in a good university library.


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