Advice for Planning and Conducting Archival Research

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This is what my archival research gear looks like (plus tissues as it can be dusty!). Image by author.

(This post by Katrin Kleemann is published as part of a collaboration with Environmental History Now)

Do you remember when the only thing keeping you from conducting research in an archive in a different city or country was simply a lack of money? It turns out, those were the good old days! In memory of the pre-pandemic world, when historians were still able to conduct archival research, I created a checklist based on my own experience.

During archival research trips in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, I’ve learned a lot, found valuable sources, and came up with ideas on how to develop my projects further. With each trip, I developed new methods for planning and making the next trip more productive and efficient—not only in the archive itself but also when analyzing the sources once I returned. I wish I had developed these methods even earlier. Let’s hope that (international) travel will be possible and safe again soon, and this advice will be of use to you when you finally will be able to embark on your next research trip.

Before you go: 

The first step is identifying the relevant sources for your topic and where you might find them. Many archives have catalogs and findings aids online, check here first—if you are lucky, your sources might even be digitized and available for download. Once you have done that, contact the archive directly and ask if they can think of any additional resources. Archivists and librarians are amazing; they know so much about their collections and can help you make the most of your visit. This is also an excellent opportunity to determine whether you are allowed to take photos of the materials. If it is not allowed, you might need to schedule an extended visit to this archive to allow for more time to transcribe the materials. Remember that some archives require a letter of introduction from your supervisor if you are a doctoral candidate. Allow some time to inquire about this so that you can ask for the letter in advance. Also, remember to bring your ID or passport, perhaps a second form of identification, and even a few passport photos for archive ID-cards. Every archive works differently, so just check their guides first.

While you are researching the online catalogs, you should also start preparing a document with all the materials you want to study at the archive. Be as precise as you can and note all the information you might need later (to request the items at the archive and for citation purposes later on), such as call numbers, titles, authors, dates, and box numbers, etc. At this stage, it is also wise to find out how long in advance you need to request the archival materials so that they are waiting for you when you arrive. This is very important because some archives require a few days of advance notice, especially if the items are stored off-site.

The good news is: in many archives, you are now allowed to take pictures. So, if you don’t have one: buy a camera. Some people use their cameraphone, but after taking a few hundred photos in a row, my phone’s camera goes on strike. Taking photos in the archive is heavy-duty work, so I would recommend buying a ~100 Euro compact camera instead. I tried my DSLR camera, but it proved awkward, and nobody wants thousands of 20 MB images clogging up your computer. A compact camera’s auto setting (remember to turn off the flash!) works really well; you simply snap, turn the page, snap, turn the page, etc. I have had mine for ten years now, and even though the lens doesn’t retract after I accidentally dropped it at Whitehaven Beach, it still takes photos at the archives reliably. Admittedly, I am always surprised when it survives another archival research trip!

While you are at it, bring or buy a spare camera battery, SD card, and lots of pencils. If you don’t have it yet, consider investing in a cloud backup to make sure all your hard work in the archive won’t be lost in case your computer breaks or gets stolen. Don’t forget to pack your camera cable and/or camera battery charger, SD card reader/adapter for your computer, and perhaps a converter if you travel to a different country. A USB stick is always a good idea in case you need to use a computer in the library or scan something from a microfilm machine. For your personal comfort, bring a scarf and warm jumper; archives are usually climatized and quite cold!

When you are at the archive:

Now the organizing, packing, and traveling lies behind you, and you finally arrive at the archive! You now get to meet the archivists in person. You might also like to find out about talks or other events that might be happening that you can use for networking; you might even encounter people who work on a similar topic or with related materials.

Sometimes archives are located inside very grand and pretty buildings, such as the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Image by author.

The most exciting part of your research is about to start: fingers crossed that you’ll find the information that you need! When reading your sources, keep an open mind. You never know, you might find something pertinent that you weren’t even looking for, or make new connections about aspects of your research that you haven’t previously come across. You might even encounter exciting things to explore for a next project.

Sit down in the reading room, get comfy, wrap yourself in your scarf (if needed), start up your computer, and pull up your prepared document. You might have to request the items online or on a paper slip, or perhaps they are already waiting for you if you were able to pre-order them for your visit. You have come a long way: after all the preparation, you are seeing the sources first-hand and with your own eyes, right in front of you. Exciting!

My workspace in the reading room at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Image by author.

Now it’s time to get to work. In the archive, I use the prepared document for everything. I color-code the materials I’ve already worked with to keep track of the ones I still have to order. I transcribe as much as possible while I’m sitting in front of the item. In most cases, it is much easier to transcribe it from paper right there and then rather than doing it one distant day in the future when this item is one among thousands of images you took during your archival research trip. I add the transcriptions below the item information, such as call number, title, author, etc.

I only use one document per archive, and here’s why: I like to annotate my transcriptions. I use the comment function to write down keywords and ideas of where this source might fit in my dissertation/paper and whether it might confirm or contradict an argument. The advantage of having only one document is that it is much easier to keyword search the file later. There is software that others use, but for me, a word document works really well.

After I’m done with an item, I take a well-deserved break from photographing and put the photos into an aptly-named folder on my computer (perhaps call number and title, or whatever makes sense to you). Then I subdivide the photos I took of the collection into subfolders, possibly sorted by years or months (or something else, depending on your research). I have found this to be quite helpful when referring back to an original photo when something doesn’t seem to make sense.

An example of how I organize the photographs from my archival research trip on my computer. Screenshot by author.

A day at the archive is exhausting, but it’s useful in the evening to sit down for an hour and to go through your notes. Did you miss something? If you have, now is your chance to look at the item again. It’s also a good idea to reflect on the day and consult the archive’s catalog again. Perhaps consulting the archival materials has given you a new indication of where else to look for suitable sources? If the materials are not quite what you had hoped for, speak to the archivist or librarian, they might have some ideas where else to look.

Also, don’t forget to bring a water bottle, lunch, and perhaps a treat; sometimes, there is no opportunity to buy lunch nearby. Most importantly: don’t forget to enjoy your time in the archive!

When you return home:

Pat yourself on the back for a job well done! But keep in mind, the trick here is not to wait too long before working with your materials. It’s much easier to work with them when they are still fresh in your mind and not a distant memory in a folder buried on your hard drive somewhere. If somebody at the archive went out of their way to help you, it doesn’t hurt to send them a thank-you email and to remember their name, so you can thank them in your book’s acknowledgments.

Enjoy, the hard physical work is behind you. The “only” thing left now is doing the mental work of analyzing your data, and incorporating into your work.

Any ideas on how to improve this checklist? Feel free to reach out to me here if you do!

Katrin Kleemann is currently a visiting scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at the LMU Munich in Germany. She tweets at @katrinkleemann.

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