Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Grad Student's Guide to Good Archival Practices

[This guest post comes from my colleague Mike Limberg, a grad student in the UConn history department working on early 20th century U.S. foreign relations.  He offers a guide to good archival practices that serves as an excellent primer for those new to archival research and a good refresher for those of us who end up kicking ourselves for the sloppy research practices of a few summers ago.  Not that I know anyone in that situation.  Ahem.  Just a reminder that this blog is always open to submissions from graduate students, and we welcome posts on just about any topic relevant to the experience.  Simply email us at -Erin]
Thanks to Erin and Mary for letting me guest post! Much as I'd like to run an academic blog of my own, I've discovered that finding the time and energy to do so is really hard. Hopefully I will make a contribution here every now and then.

This year, I've had the pleasure to serve as the semi-official mentor to a couple of new grad students who also work with my adviser (part of an initiative which our History Graduate Student Association has helped encourage for at least the last few incoming cohorts of students). I found myself talking about archive strategies and etiquette with them recently, and thought it might be a discussion worth moving to a larger forum. Using archival sources is integral to being a history graduate student, but I've found that learning how to find and access archives can be very opaque or haphazardly taught. I sort of learned as I went, starting with a few days in the National Archives as an undergraduate where I really had no idea what I was doing. I took a long time and a few different research projects as an undergraduate and a graduate student to understand how archives worked and evolve better systems for keeping track of what I found. As a result, I wanted to share some tips for things I've figured out how to do and ask for tips from others to get new ideas as I look ahead to a summer of dissertation research.

Finding Archival Sources

Figuring out what primary sources exist and where they are can be easy... but might also require a lot of time searching online catalogs, talking to archivists, and emailing to find privately held collections. The nature of history research varies widely enough that I will stick to generalities here. Archives come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the big institutions that most of us use to local historical societies to individual people who can contribute oral histories and their personal collections (Archive Stories, edited by Antoinette Burton, is one volume that pushes historians to expand the definition of an archive, think about how archives are put together, and examine who shapes what materials end up in collections. It would be really interesting to hear from some colleagues who have worked in acquisitions and collections management to hear their perspective for a future DGL post!)

The easy first step is to mine the footnotes and bibliographies of the secondary sources you're reading as background on a project. That gives a sense of what others working on an established topic have used, which you might be revisiting or re-reading from a new angle.

Spend some time searching Google and the WorldCat catalog for the names of people or organizations you've identified. WorldCat includes listings for a number of archival sources. Google can turn up a ton of unrelated material, but can also turn up collections that authors in the pre-Internet days missed. Older published primary sources that once you may have had to request via ILL or visit a reading room to view are increasingly available via Google Books as well.

Investigate databases and search programs. ArchiveGrid is one potential useful database for finding material; it's dedicated to collecting and and collating information about the location of sources. A beta version is accessible for free through their website. Your institution's library likely subscribes to a number of databases dedicated to finding or presenting primary sources, such as scanned copies of newspapers or state papers. Check these out, and ask questions of your library's history specialist if you have one. He or she may know of databases that exist but your school lacks the money to subscribe to; these may be something you can check out by visiting a larger, better-endowed school nearby.

Check out the institutions people are involved in. Famous people often donate their papers to their alma maters or, if they've worked for an important organization or government administration, have materials as part of those collections. Individuals may have papers as part of this sort of collection without it being immediately apparent via web search.

A tip throughout your search, and through the following steps- keep track of where and how you search and what you identify as a possible source along the way! This can keep you from replicating too much of your earlier steps if you have to search over multiple sessions.

Archive Pre-Planning

Once a useful collection is located, start planning what a visit to that archive would entail. Check the archive's website for their hours of operation and any potential disruptions- holidays, renovations, etc.- that might affect when you visit. Look to make sure there are no special restrictions on the collection you hope to examine, like requirements to get prior permission from the collection's source. Note their policy on scans, copies, and digital camera use (more on that later). Often reading rooms are open to the public, but other times accessing an archive requires prior appointment. Many archives store the majority of their materials off-site, so even if you can freely access the reading room you may need to request materials online or by phone at least a day in advance of your visit.

Selecting Materials to Examine

You've identified a relevant collection of papers- great. Finding aids and help from archivists let you figure out what you need to specifically examine, since generally you won't have to look at everything a person wrote or an organization saved. Most larger archives have lots of their finding aids online, and this makes the process much easier. Established collections of paper material are typically stored in folders within archival boxes, or possibly in bound volumes. Often these are stored off-site and must be requested in advance, which is why trying to identify exactly what you need and planning ahead will be a vital way to make your archive trip more productive. Try to correlate the date range or correspondents or topics you know you're interested in with the organization of items laid out in the finding aid. Sometimes the only way to know for sure what you need is to look at a detailed guide to the material when you get to the site. Trying to contact an archivist to get help and advice in advance can be very hit or miss; sometimes it might help you easily determine what to look at or even lead to finding new collections, other times you may not even get any response. But it is worth trying.

Basic Archive Procedure and Suggestions

This will vary considerably depending on the archive, but the standard practice is for the researcher to leave all items other than pencil, computer, and camera in a locker outside the reading room. Once inside, you check with an archivist or staff member to get your materials. If this archive does not have an online request system, this may require filling out paper call slips. The archive staff will retrieve your materials while you wait in the reading room and deliver them to your seat. Rules generally require that only one box be on the table at a time, and only one folder out at a time. This ensures materials stay secure and helps keep them in order.

Keep careful track of what items are from which place. Create some sort of system to delineate folders, boxes, etc. and information about author, date, and other information for individual items. It's also not a bad idea to jot a few notes about the main content of even areas of a collection you may not need just then; you may need it down the line as your project evolves or as you move on to another.

Digital cameras have changed how historians work in archives; it's now more common to take as many photographs as possible during a shorter time in the archive and go through them in depth at a later time. Doing this is very depending on the camera policy of the archive, however, so be careful to check in advance. If you do take a lot of pictures, try to have some sort of system that helps identify which images match which item. A suggestion is to try to include the labeled edge of the folder of documents, or include a piece of paper with that information noted. Trying to match up pictures and items later on, particularly with hundreds or thousands of images, is extremely hard to do. Back up your photos frequently as you work, not just at the end of the day. Also, bring two sets of spare batteries. It's really no fun to be in the middle of a 100-page document and frantically trying to coax out the last ergs of power with begging, pleading, and amateur voodoo.

Most researchers now use laptops to take notes, so think ahead about your power supply needs and whether any peripherals (like a mouse) would help. Save your working documents often. Most archives also have wifi access available, so uploading copies of your notes and photos to a cloud server every now and then is a great idea; a portable flash drive is another option for a backup. It's generally accepted and safe to leave your laptop and materials at your place if you take a lunch or stretch break, but check with the staff.

Be courteous and polite to the archive staff. Express gratitude for their help with your research requests and try not to get too torqued if something goes wrong or isn't how you expected. This doesn't mean you have to suck up, but archivists who like you or see you as a professional are much more willing to help you and go the extra mile to make sure you get what you need. They might even be much more willing to direct you to a good local place for a bite of lunch when you take a break. Sometimes archivists will be less helpful than you'd like, or even actively impede your work despite your best efforts. But this is less common.

Dress professionally. This doesn't mean you need a suit and tie or the female equivalent. Most archives have no real dress expectations, and you will likely see the whole range from suits to shorts and sweatpants (I was rather shocked about this my first few days researching at Harvard). But looking nice is a nice reminder to you that you're here as part of a job and give a little boost of confidence to cover jitters about figuring out the system. It signals to the staff that you are serious about being there and working. There is also the chance you might run into someone you know professionally, like a senior scholar whose work you have read three times or a member of your own department's faculty. Consider what would be comfortable to sit in for hours at a time, and bear in mind that reading rooms are often fairly cold (though occasionally too warm!). I usually go for dress pants and a dress shirt, tie optional.

When you are done researching, let the staff know you are heading out. If you will return the next day or even within a week or so, generally the staff will keep your materials in the reading room for you so you don't have to request it again.

Good practice is to spend a few minutes as soon as possible after finishing work going through your notes and files. Make sure everything you produced is saved and filed somewhere you can find it. Make a backup copy or two. Try to take a few minutes to jot some summation notes about the types of material you went through that day, what seemed most important, what preliminary conclusions jumped out. This will be really hard, particularly after an 8 or 10 hour day staring at documents and even more so if you then have a long commute back home or to your hotel. I really don't do a great job of this yet myself, particularly on days when I travel to archives in Boston. But it's a great way to jump-start your thinking and analysis.

So there are some tips. I don't pretend to know all the tricks, and would love to hear from others about their suggestions for what else should be added to this guide. But hopefully this is something that might be helpful for grad students just starting their archival work, or even for advanced undergrads.

1 comment:

  1. "Try to take a few minutes to jot some summation notes about the types of material you went through that day, what seemed most important, what preliminary conclusions jumped out. This will be really hard, particularly after an 8 or 10 hour day staring at documents and even more so if you then have a long commute back home or to your hotel."

    Mike, I think this is one of the most important things we can do, and I'm not great at it either. What I've found most helpful is jotting my reflections down in my research journal by hand, as soon as possible, especially if it's a long research trip. If you have a commute on public transit, that's a great time. Even if you don't look at those again till after your research trip is over, you've gotten them down on paper. (And because I'm a Luddite, I still use paper.) I think it helps capture the connections you're making when you're in the thick of it, which you might not remember later without a reminder.