Implicitly Learned: Archival Research

A while back, as part of my minor field readings in History and New Media, I was tasked with creating an interactive story related to historical thinking, the process of archival research, or a historical topic you have researched. I produced a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” wherein the adventure is visiting an archives. Although I had originally intended it to be about what tools a historian might choose to use in the archives, I had a sort of aha moment when I had to pick where to start the story: a visit to an archives starts before you ever walk in the door.

For those of us who research regularly, this is a given. Yet I do not recall anyone explicitly teaching me how to go to an archives. My Masters program included visits to the major repositories in Edinburgh and in each of those locations the staff member explained whatever unique system the institution had, but I did archival research as an undergrad, spending hours in front of microfilm in the New York Public Library. Somewhere along the way, possibly by trial and error, I figured out that you have to check for opening hours, for policies on what you can and cannot bring with you, and all the other steps which by now seem routine.

Since that readings course, I have wondered whether there are degree programs, at any level, which explicitly teach their students about the complexities of archival research. I have, in fact, been meaning to write a version of this blog post for the last eighteen months. Then I received an email from the director of my doctoral program asking me and a few other PhD students and candidates to speak at the first doctoral colloquium of the Spring 2015 semester about doing research in archives, specifically archives far afield. One of my fellow speakers conducted research in South Africa, another received a fellowship to spend a few weeks in California, and I have my experience with the archives in Liverpool.

I don’t know what they’re going to say. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to say. I have a number of stories about Liverpool, including the surprise invitation for a second day of research at a private library and the archives which closed its website when the building was under renovation. I may not have time to share the details, but I think I can distill what I’ve learned:

Do as much research as you can before hand. Know what you can and cannot bring with you. Try to find out what you want to look at first, whether a specific item from a digitally-available finding aid or a general hope of a kind of record from vague hints online. Whenever possible, make contact before you go. Be prepared for unexpected opportunities, build flexibility into your research schedule. If the archivists ask you to join them for tea, be open to accepting (they might have delicious tea biscuits).