10 Tips for Using Archives

Last week, I wrote a blog post about a visit to the Kiplinger Library of the Historical Society of Washington, DC. As I did, I started thinking about ways to make a visit to Kiplinger, or to any archives, more productive. I wrote up my ideas for She Writes, reproduced here.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you will find an archives useful for historical background or inspiration. Little did I know when I began doing research on abolitionist Julia Wilbur seven years ago about some of the treasures (and dead ends) that awaited me.

Here are a few things I have learned along the way to make an archives visit, especially with limited time, as productive as possible.

Note: For simplicity's sake, I use the word "archive." Remember that historical societies, special collections in university libraries, and local-history rooms in public libraries are also your friend, but may have similar strictures.

1. Prepare online beforehand.

Many archives post all or high-level highlights of their holdings. They often have finding aids, which are detailed summaries of a specific collection. Sometimes, popular items are digitized and you can access them from your own home or office. 

Here's a finding aid for the Edward Shaw papers as an example. I already knew the general contents of each box before I arrived at the Library of Congress.

And here is a partially digitized collection from the University of Rochester from from its Frederick Douglass collection.

Make as specific a list as you can of the items you want to read. Include names and catalogue numbers; archives each have their own numbering systems, rather than a standard like the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimel.

2. Contact the staff before you go.

Not only do you want to make sure that the room is open before you drive two hours or take time off work, but also you want to make sure you can access the collection(s) when you arrive. Some store materials off-site. Or they may require that you make an appointment since they can only handle so many researchers at a time. Some, such as the National Archives, have specific "pull times" when you can request materials. Put in your request 15 minutes after the pull time and you will have to wait until the next one.

3. Plan what to bring (and not bring).

Every archive has its own rules, but generally speaking do NOT expect to bring in a scanner, pens, coats, or notebooks. They will probably offer you a locker and, in some cases, a little baggie for your valuables.

What you CAN expect to bring in: laptop, tablet, phone, thumb drive, and maybe a pencil and a single sheet of paper. 

Thus, I make sure that any background information I may want to refer to is on my laptop or thumb drive. I take notes on the laptop. I take pictures of originals with my iPad. 

4. Have a good breakfast or snack before you start.

Archives forbid food, including water, for obvious reasons. You want to work for as long as possible without having to break off to find a place to eat.

5. Be pleasant and appreciative.

No doubt the staff has dealt with many patrons who have grumbled about the rules. Admittedly, there usually are many rules, but you are handling fragile, often one-of-a-kind materials. Even those that are less rare (old map books, for example) are hard to replace.

In addition to the benefits of common courtesy, you will probably find the staff has helpful suggestions about other resources in their collection.

6. Respect the fragility of the materials.

Very commonly used materials are digitized or microfilmed, but you may also receive old diaries, letters, official records, and newspapers. I have opened folders at the Archives and thought, "I am the first person to look at this in more than 100 years!" It is mind-boggling, but a tremendous responsibility. Treat paper, bindings, and photos with great care. Most archives have a "one folder opened at a time" rule. If something happens to crumble under your hands, despite your delicacy, tell the archivist rather than stuff it back inside the box. They can take care of it then rather than let its condition worsen.

7. Block out your time.

So many boxes, so little time! Decide on the approach that works best for you, depending on the time you have, the amount of materials, and your needs. Do you need to review every piece, and can you easily return if you run out of time? You may want to start with the first folder and work your way through the collection. Or do have one day, and a clear mission of what you most want to find? In that case, you will need to cherry-pick. Sometimes, researchers will swoop into an archives and take photos, page after page, to read and sort through later.

There's no right answer, but keep your objective in mind. 

Begin to develop your strategy if the collection has an online finding aid. The finding aid should explain how the materials are organized (e.g., chronologically, or by subject, or by type of item) and the size, either by number of items or linear feet.

8. Be open to new directions.

Even with your careful planning, you may find surprises, both good and bad. The collection you expected to yield such rich material didn't reveal much of anything. Or the writing is illegible or ink-blotted. On the other hand, a conversation with the archivist or on-site look at the collection makes you realize that something else would illuminate your topic. In 2012, I opened a box at Haverford College and found that my subject had kept a parallel set of diaries in addition to the ones that I had been transcribing!

9. Record your sources as you read them.

Do not make my mistake. I am sometimes in such a rush to read and take notes on the content that I have forgotten to write down the exact source. You need it for citations or at least for your credibility if ever questioned. You don't have to edit into the right bibliographic format while on-site but make sure you have captured enough information so someone else could find it.

10. Sort through your treasures as soon as you can afterwards.

While there, take a few minutes to make sure you are capturing what you think you are. One time at my local library, I spent several hours downloading microfilmed pages onto a thumb drive. At least, I thought I did. My drive was blank when I returned home. Fortunately, I could easily return, but I should have checked after I had read the first two or three pages.

Then, when you get home, make sense of what you have collected before it gets lost amidst all the other files you have on your project. Give file names to photos (not just IMG12345.jpg). 

Even with all the rules and restrictions, using an archives is one of my favorite parts of the creative process.

What other tips have you found to make it succeed?


Print Friendly and PDF