Stacey N. Gilkinson
Classes have finished, exams are over and it’s finally summer, which means it is now time for many researchers to embark on trips to the archives! To the novice academic or researcher, archival institutions can be uncharted territory. You might be wondering how you should approach an institution, what to bring with you or how to navigate a sea of files in a limited amount of time. As an archivist, I am not just a ‘gatekeeper’ to the collection. A large part of my job is to act as a facilitator, bridging the gap between you, the researcher, and the materials for which you are looking. It is through an extension of that role that I offer these tips to help you make the most of your time in the archives.
Choose an institution early
Archives are extremely diverse. Take the time to consider the kind of archives you need to visit. They can be large, publicly funded national institutions with hundreds of staff or small, volunteer-run community spaces that rely on donations. Factors like these will inevitably affect the research experience. For example, a national archives may have scheduled reference hours when researchers can walk into the institution to consult an archivist. A community archives might not have the staff required for regular reference hours, so you will need to make an appointment. Depending on the institution, you could be asked to apply for a ‘reader’s card’ or order materials several days in advance of your visit. Considering these factors, choose the institution you want to visit long before you embark on your research trip.
For over a decade now, many archival institutions have been digitizing a portion of their collection for public online access. If the institution you have chosen to visit has a public access database, use it! However, an online database is not a replacement for visiting the archives. Use it as a starting point, making note of any relevant records found online so that you have something specific to request ahead of your visit.
Contact the archivist before your visit
Archivists are invaluable resources. They know the ins and outs of the collection beyond what is online or in a file list. Regardless of whether or not an institution has open reference hours, providing the archivist (by phone or email) with a clear idea of the who, what, when, where and why of what you are researching before your visit is both courteous to the archivist and a significant benefit to you. Your request should also have a focus. Requesting all material related to your research topic is not always possible for the archivist to deliver and it will likely result in you sorting through a large amount of irrelevant information. To avoid this scenario, ensure that you communicate key questions you have about your topic. The more time the archivist has to prepare and the more information you provide them with, the more likely you are to find the answers you’re seeking!
Ask about the archives’ policies and pack accordingly
While communicating with the archivist, be sure to ask about the archives’ policies. For example, are electronic devices like laptops, personal scanners or cameras permitted in the reading room? Knowing the policies ahead of time helps you know what to pack for your visit. Though policies vary by institution, the most common things not permitted in reading rooms are pens, food and drink, winter coats and large bags. Bring only what you really need to the archives. Always pack pencils, a notebook, photo ID, and cash for photocopying fees. If permitted by the institution, you may also consider bringing a fully charged camera (with power cable and adapter if necessary), a small tripod, a portable hard drive, and a laptop for taking notes.
Create a template for organizing your notes
Sorting through a mass of material can be a daunting prospect. Having a template where you can record exactly what you have looked at will help you to create clear, organized notes and can serve as a guide for future visits. Make note of the box, file, and item number and title of each document you examine and organize your notes by research session. By putting this tip into practice, you ensure that you have the information you need for citations and that you won’t waste valuable time by accidentally viewing the same material twice.
Read the research agreement closely
Signing a research agreement is a common part of many archival research visits. At its core, a research agreement is a contract between the institution and researcher that establishes the terms of access to and use of archival records. Before you get to delve into boxes of historical gems, you will need to sign this document. As part of the agreement, you may be asked to provide your personal contact information, photo ID, along with any information related to the purpose of your visit. It is extremely important that you abide by the policies laid out in the agreement. Ask for a copy of the signed agreement and read it thoroughly so that you know what your responsibilities are as a researcher.
A few parting words
Over time, all researchers will develop their own research methods and approaches. These tips are intended to help the newer researchers among you navigate your first encounters with archival institutions. Whether you are researching locally or headed overseas, remember that archivists are your allies in making a research visit efficient and effective.
Stacey N. Gilkinson is the Project and Reference Archivist for the Sisters of Service Archives in Toronto. She holds a Master of Information in Archives and Records Management from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information.
We’ve been working so hard at my institution to move away from terms like ‘gatekeeper’, that I found it jarring here.
This is a nice start, but there is a lot more that needs to be said. For example, some people will be interested in the temperature of the archives. It tends to be cooler and, even in the summer, some researchers might want to bring a sweater. They might want to know how many boxes / objects they can request in a day (and how often per day they can make requests) so that they can figure out how many days they’ll need for their visit. Researchers going to a different country, or even province, will want to make sure that there are no statutory holidays scheduled during their visit that will limit their access to documents. They’ll want to know whether an archival library has summer hours that might vary from the ones posted to the institution’s website when researchers do their initial investigation in the winter/spring. If researchers are not permitted to use a digital camera, they’ll want to know the cost of photocopies. They’ll certainly want to know if there is (free) wifi.
They’ll want to know whether the archive has a cafeteria, whether there’s some sort of room they can eat in, or whether there is cheap, quick food nearby. They’ll want to know if there are cheap, safe places to stay nearby if they are visiting from out of town. They’ll want to know how long it takes to register, whether registration can be done online, and whether registration hours correspond to opening hours (I’ve been to archives that opened before 9am but one could not register until 10am). They’ll want to know whether the archive is open and/or staffed on the weekend (sometimes, they’re open but there are no staff to pull material and/or to register you).
I certainly see value in consulting archivists before visiting an archive, but oftentimes, the most important person you can speak to is a fellow researcher who has visited the same archive recently.