What's the protocol for doing research in an archive?
March 22, 2010 2:01 PM   Subscribe

What's the protocol for doing research in an archive? I know I probably have to call in advance, but is there anything else I should know? And do I have to know exactly what I'm looking for before I go?

I'm thinking about applying to history Ph.D. programs next fall, but I'm still relatively new to the field. I would like to investigate some of the local archives to see if there's anything in there that could be useful for my research (or rather, potential research), but since in the past I've found all of my primary sources online or in regular libraries, I'm not really sure how to proceed in an archive.

Am I allowed to just go in as an unaffiliated researcher? Do I need to know what I'm looking for beyond my specific subject areas? I mean, I know I'm looking for stuff about German immigrants in my state, but it's not like I know I'm looking for the letters of Frau Whatever. Do you have any tips for how to do productive research in an archive (I hear it's a different sort of animal than regular library research), or about the general protocol while I'm there? The archives I'm looking at are all state archives, if that makes any difference.
posted by colfax to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's going to depend on the type of archive. For instance, in order to look at something in a Harvard U. archive I had to prove that I had a PhD, and show a photo ID. On the other hand, when I did research in the New York State archives I just had to show some ID. Some places will let you bring a laptop, others won't. Some will let you bring your own paper or notebook, some won't. Some insist that you wear gloves- which they provide- others don't.

Look at archive website for limitations and instructions. The website may have a catalog you can browse to give you an idea of interesting stuff. Having even a vague question will be helpful.

Have fun!
posted by mareli at 2:08 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

In advance of your visit, spend as much time with the relevant finding aids as you can. Knowing what's in the box you've requested before you open it is a huge help.

Also, be upfront with the librarians about the limitations of your knowledge of protocol. Librarians are good people and will be glad to show you the ropes. Especially since your frank questions and their direct answers will help prevent you from doing inadvertent damage to their collection.
posted by felix betachat at 2:15 PM on March 22, 2010

This will vary widely. I assume you're doing archival work in the states. You may or may not have to pay to get access to the archives. You may or may not need permission, which may or may not require certain credentials. You may or may not have to know exactly what you're looking for but sometimes you have to submit requests to see certain materials, in which case you'd have to know what you're looking for. It might help to contact the archive to see if the administration has any guidelines or indexes that you could reference before making the trip there.
posted by proj at 2:16 PM on March 22, 2010

It helps to know specifics wherever possible and most material is catalogued online. If you have questions, they respond well to email for specific information. I found the LOC very helpful with email questions. They even mailed sample copies of some material to know I was on the right track. There are plenty of resources online which can tell you where to find specific information.
posted by JJ86 at 2:28 PM on March 22, 2010

As a reference archivist, I can suggest to you that it might be more efficient (but not necessary) for you to contact the archive you'd like to visit via email before you arrive.

This way you can have someone working on your request while you rest in the comfort of your own home. Once the archivist has located material that might be of interest to you, they can contact you and you can come in and look at what they and you have decided would be of particular interest.

Of course, a part of this is predicated on you being able to do an initial search of the archive's finding aids online. Not all archives will have this, so you might have to show up cold. But anyway, a nice initial email explaining what you're looking for will most likely save you time.

Good luck!
posted by elder18 at 2:39 PM on March 22, 2010

You may be required to bring specific writing materials (eg pencil and paper) or purchase them at the archive if you have forgotten to do so. You may or not may be allowed to take photographs or photocopies of the material you are working on. Ringing ahead and asking will pay lots of dividends for questions like this.

More generally, and more intangibly, I have found you need to spend some time in a particular archive before you can make it speak to you. Don't go expecting to find what you want within hours. Making friends with the archivist(s) will help - certainly my experience in the UK is that county record office archivists are very good at knowing their way round their collections even if they haven't necessarily looked at part of it. But you will probably find you need to spend longer than you anticipate.
posted by greycap at 3:07 PM on March 22, 2010

And do I have to know exactly what I'm looking for before I go?

You'll need a general idea, as everyone has stated. The archive may not be organized in a way for you to look up a general topic, but rather by individuals who would meet that criteria for example. As everyone has mentioned, contact your friendly archivist and check out their finding guides. Those two things will make yours and their task much easier. It seems in terms of limitations on who can see what, it appears that generally, the more rare or precious the item, the more restricted it may be to see it. I've been to several archives, including NARA, and generally as both a graduate student researcher and private citizens, and have never encountered any barriers.

Another source for where to begin looking is to check out works by other researchers. Look at their footnotes / bibliographies and see what collections they accessed.

In sum, everything everyone has said above. As a general rule, you will never be allowed to use a pen in an archive. Always plan on using a pencil.
posted by Atreides at 3:26 PM on March 22, 2010

At at least one of the archives at my school (the one I use) you have to arrange for the material to be gathered from the stacks ahead of time. You can't simply show up and browse. They'll have the material ready for you and you sit in large reading room while you are there. So, at least at that archive, you absolutely have to contact them ahead of time. (The rules for using the material varies from source to source, some stuff is ancient so you have to wear gloves for it, for other stuff you can just leaf through it).
posted by oddman at 3:37 PM on March 22, 2010

Definitely find out as much as you can online, but realize that many smaller institutions without a lot of cash may not have finding aids or even a catalog available on line. However if they have a site, it should list the general area(s) in which they collect and most likely some sort of listing of their most prominent collections, although it might be buried in some narrative text about the institution. At the very least, they should provide contact information, as well as any restrictions or special requirements for accessing their collections.

As a general rule archivists are all about accessibility and most of the places in which I've worked, the only restrictions have been that the person should at least be high school or college aged, basically mature and responsible enough to hopefully be able to understand the special handling required when working with original documents. And even then we made exceptions. At the university archives where I once worked, I helped a very bright middle school student who was one of the most polite and responsible researchers that I ever had the pleasure of assisting. Some places, like the Harvard example above, will have much more restrictive policies, but they tend to be exclusive institutions that also have incredibly valuable collections and a correspondingly greater need for security. I've even worked at places that did not require an appointment and would pull materials for you while you waited, but it's best not to go in with that assumption.

I think that you're general research interest in German immigrants in your state is enough of a subject to get you started. You might want to call a few places and see if you can make an appointment to speak with the archivist/librarian. They might be able to offer some tips on newly acquired materials that have a lot of research potential and that haven't already been mined by other scholars. If they've worked there a long time, they will probably have an institutional memory of hidden gems, including underutilized collections, that you won't find in any finding aid, catalog, or website description. They may also be able to identify collections that at first glance do not look like they are related to your interests, but actually contain a cache of documents that would could be quite useful. Befriend these people, but be respectful of their time. Particularly in this economy, most places are woefully understaffed. I can't vouch for your ability to make such an appointment, but as an archivist, I'd certainly be willing to meet with someone just to conduct a reference interview. Finally archivists talk to other archivists, even if they don't have anything in their institution that is related to your research area, they most likely will be able to give you a few tips on what other archives you should check out.
posted by kaybdc at 7:43 PM on March 22, 2010

Not much to add to these useful suggestions--I particularly like greycap's line that More generally, and more intangibly, I have found you need to spend some time in a particular archive before you can make it speak to you.

One thing I would add, though, is that you might find something about specific procedures of your local archive at the AHA's archives wiki. And even if you don't find anything there now, this will definitely be a useful site if you're going on to do a PhD.

posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:49 PM on March 22, 2010

Thanks so much for the information, everyone!
posted by colfax at 10:47 AM on March 23, 2010

It's all been said, but I like archives so I want to say it again :)

Archives are a bit old-fashioned; some have informative websites but many still work mostly by telephone and fax, and a telephone call is often the easiest way to find out the basics (opening hours, ID requirements, policies). Each archive will have its own specific policies, but they are all used to having new visitors so they don't mind inquiries.

Pencils are your friend -- I've never come across an archive that allowed ink-based writing instruments in, but even if one exists you still shouldn't for the sake of the documents. Some archives do not allow pencils with erasers because of rubbings dirtying the documents; some not allow or restrict the amount of loose paper you can bring in. If allowed, a laptop is often the best thing for taking notes with (check out how many power points are available in smaller archives), but I still bring a pencil and a small bound notepad for making quick notes or in case (gods forbid) my laptop dies.

Archives are utterly unlike libraries in the way that the collections are organised and catalogued, but exactly how unlike depends on the nature of the collection. I tend to work with records which are produced by organizations and then deposited in the same order as it would have been for the organisation (all the account books here, all the meeting minutes there, etc) -- this is true for government records as well. I like how systematic these collections can be -- you may not know what you will find, but at least you know what you are looking for. But collections which have been put together by a collector may have things all over the place and manuscripts from all sorts of different sources; the archivists may have given an order to the collection, but that order could be organisation by size.

Unfortunately, manuscripts cannot be as systematically catalogued as books -- they don't necessarily have such simple characteristics as a title or author(s) or one subject -- one manuscript volume may have many texts within it. This is why archivists will often make more descriptive catalogue entries than librarians do, and researchers will actually sit around reading catalogues/finding aids. The exception are systematic records where the description wouldn't tell you much, e.g. enlistment papers, which may have been catalogued only as much as required for fetching out the box/volume/etc.

Fortunately, archivists are also very helpful -- and I've found that archivists or archive assistants in smaller archives are especially so. If you call ahead, you may be able to book an appointment with someone to discuss your interests before you begin; I've been able to do this even at a pretty major archive as a callow and very ignorant student. But greycap is right that it can take a long time to really get to know a collection and thus find what you are looking for -- archival research is much more difficult in that way than historical research based on printed material. You spent a great deal of time going through chaff to find that one jewel you were looking for, and sometimes you just don't. That's why many historians will go into an archive with one idea of what they are looking for -- but ready to change their project to match what they find.
posted by jb at 11:51 AM on March 23, 2010

Oh - don't be surprised if you arrive at an archive only to find that there isn't one catalogue, but a different catalogue for different parts of the collection. Or that the catalogues are electronic or organised into a card catalogue, but printed out into a book like a table of contents to that part of the collection (with sometimes very cryptic titles). You usually end up spending some time reading through the catalogues to get a sense of what is there; that's why it's worth it to read any catalogues/finding aids that are available (online, in a library) before you get there, just to save time. (I'm using catalogue/finding aid interchangably - perhaps one of the archivists could let me know what the correct usage is).
posted by jb at 11:55 AM on March 23, 2010

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