Working in the Archives: a Follow-up

A few days ago, I posted a few suggestions to help guide a first-time researcher while working in the archives. I will admit my surprise at the response the post received – it seems posts on archival research are more popular than alcohol! A few historians and scholars offered additional thoughts to the post, and I wanted to share them here.

First, Stephanie Richmond (@profrichmond) pointed out the importance of giving the reference librarians and archivists prior notice to a visit. This is absolutely true, though policies can vary between differing institutions. At many archives, it is necessary to contact those who work there several days, or possibly a couple weeks, in advance. Introduce yourself, briefly state what you are working on, and let them know when you intend to arrive (and how long you will be there). This allows the archivists to prepare for your arrival, as well as pull together any materials you wish to consult.

Now, some archives, often at the larger institutions, do not require this advance notice. Again, to go back to my trip to the UK National Archives last year, their system is set up in a way that you can walk through the door, fill out the necessary paperwork, request your materials, and get to work. No prior notice is necessary. On the other hand, to work at the Parliamentary Archives, I had to notify the archivists and, essentially, reserve a spot in the reading room several days in advance. I also had to provide them with a list of the materials I wanted to look over. After I arrived, everything was ready to go.

The entrance to the archives is on the side of that tower. I recommend finding an excuse to work there.

This simply reinforces the importance of familiarizing yourself with the policies of each institution you wish to visit, which are almost always posted on the archive’s website.

In addition to that point, Christienna D. Fryar (@jamaicandale) raised a question about the need to dress professionally, and she (wisely) stated that it is important to wear comfortable clothes while working at the archives. While I do think that dressing professionally is an aspect of working at an archive, I want to stress that it is not a requirement (unless the archive specifically states this on their website, which I have yet to encounter). I included it in the previous post simply because I think dressing professionally will impart a good impression, and, again, it shows you are treating your work at the archive like a job (which it is). Most often, other researchers tend to dress up a bit, and I like to match that. However, that does not mean it is absolutely necessary.

The issue of comfort is one to keep in mind, though. Yes, archival research involves a lot of sitting, reading, and writing/typing notes. It also involves standing for several hours, at times in rather awkward positions, while taking pictures of the documents (always double-check photography policies on the archive’s website). I had this problem last year during my trip to London. Because of the expense of the trip, I only had a few weeks to visit four archives, so I ended up taking as many pictures of documents as possible (to gather as many materials as possible). I ended up with a bad case of ‘archive back’* from leaning over the table for several hours taking pictures. Be mindful of how you sit, stand, or of any awkward positions you may twist your body into while doing research. Also, be careful when carrying some of the document boxes – they can be heavy at times.

If you are lucky, the archive may offer a stand for your camera (an example from the reading room at the Kew). However, this is something of a luxury.

My thanks to everyone who read and commented on the last post – I had no idea it would gain so much attention! As always, if further suggestions for archival research come to mind, please share them in the comments below or on Twitter!


*Oddly enough, I referred the back pain/spasms that I developed as ‘archive back’ when talking to folks back home (kind of as a joke), only to find other researchers using that same term several months later on Twitter. So I guess it’s a thing, who knew?


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