10 Tips for Archive Research

It’s time: you need to start your all-important dissertation, along with the mountain of research that accompanies it. Once your first of many bouts of panic and tears has passed, and you’ve picked a topic that you’re passionate about, you start to consider what sort of primary sources you want. But then, of course, you’re going to need to find them. Chances are, you’re going to need to use an archive, and those places can be pretty scary when you have no idea what you’re doing. Thankfully, you’ve got this article to help you out - coming from someone who has failed at doing all of these things listed below - so you won’t need to make the same mistakes.

1) Do your research.

Most archives are specialists in a certain topic, so it’s best to check their online catalogue to make sure that they are going to directly help your research. Their work may be well-known and highly regarded, but if they don’t have any of the material you need, this could save you a wasted journey. Don’t forget to write it all down too, including the shelf-markings (where the sources can be found). Some places, like the British Library, require you to have done this, and it’s also helpful if the online system crashes on the day of your visit.

2) Plan your visit.

Basic stuff, I know - but if you’re visiting a few places it can be easy to forget information such as the opening hours and which train to catch to get to where you need to be. Work out a route and note down absolutely everything because it will be really helpful in the long run.

3) Email the archive coordinator.

This tip is particularly useful for smaller archives! Even if you know what you want, it’s worth emailing whoever is in charge of the collection to make sure that there’s nothing in terms of archive rules that you’ve missed. It's also key to note if there’s any chance that items which are closed to the public might be available to you as a researcher. Don’t worry about seeming pushy – most coordinators are happy that people are keen to use their material, and will do whatever they can to help you.

4. Do you need a membership?

Some of the bigger archives require you to apply for a "Reader’s Pass" or "Readers Ticket" in order to access their material, which can be done online or in-person. The British Library requires two pieces of proof of identity; your student card will be helpful in determining how long your pass will last for. However, first-time applicants can do all of this online, which will save you significant hassle on the day!

5) Delivery time for materials.

Larger archives, like the British Library, have collections in different parts of the country, so it can take a few days for certain materials to be delivered to your closest archive. As a result, if you organise your Reader's Pass online, you should double-check whether what you need will be on-site or not. At any rate, your sources will be held in whatever room you ask it to be sent to, so it may be worth just ordering it all for whatever day you want to visit the archive.

6) Know the rules.

If you’ve followed all of the above, then you probably won’t have any issues with this, but sometimes information slips through the cracks and it’s best to read the signs or, if that fails, ask at the desk. At the British Library, for instance, you will need your seat number and Readers’ Pass in order to collect and return material, you can only use pencils for writing on paper, and you have to store all bags and coats in lockers. Taking photos of documents is usually fine, provided that you don’t use flash and don't use the images for commercial reasons. In addition, some places like the Bishopsgate Institute will need you to sign a form to confirm this, writing down full details of the sources you’re taking pictures of.

7) Be smart with your time.

The deadline may seem a long way off, but you can’t afford to waste time. Whatever you’re reading may be really interesting, but, if you’ve got a lot to get through, try not to get too hooked - this may result in a frantic struggle to get everything done. The reverse goes for documents that aren’t as helpful as you thought they would be: don’t try to slog through them in the hope that something might come up, return them and move on. Also, whilst some archives will hold materials for you if you want to come back to them, be realistic with how much material you can get through and make sure you don’t order too much. You must return the whole of one order, so you don’t want to be the person who orders a whole year’s worth of magazines! This can only result in the poor woman behind the desk dragging out a trolley’s-worth of massive volumes that will cause you both unnecessary stress.

8) Be careful with the materials.

You may not require gloves, but you do need to handle the sources with care as a lot of it will be made up of thin or delicate paper - or may even be falling apart. Moreover, a lot of them will be tied up with string, so make sure that you remember to re-tie everything.

9) Bring your own lunch.

Archive cafes are very expensive. Especially considering the cost of travel, it’s better to make your own food.

10) Don’t be intimidated.

You might not feel like it, but as a student, you are an academic and have just as much right to be there as the lecturer sitting two seats down with ten years of research experience. If you ever feel lost or confused about what to do, resident archivists are always more than happy to lend a helping hand to make your visit as straightforward and beneficial as possible.

Relax, keep these tips in mind, and smash that dissertation!