How To Make The Most Of A Visit To An Archive

How To Make The Most Of A Visit To An Archive

Charis Gambon March 6, 2022

I recently visited my first archive to conduct some academic research. Here are some of the tips I would give to anyone who needs to visit an archive for research. I enjoyed the experience immensely and will definitely be visiting more archives, and I would encourage anyone who is studying or creates research to visit an archive if the need arises.

Plan ahead

Most archives will require you to email or phone ahead of time, to ensure there will be space for you on the specific date you wish to visit. Booking also means that the archive staff can ensure that your archival items will be ready for you upon your arrival, which means you will be able to start straight away. Even if the specific archive you plan to visit doesn’t necessarily need to be booked, it’s a great habit to get into anyway.

Archives will not let you take an outdoors coat in (either on your body or placed on the back of a chair). There will be somewhere to hang up your coat outside of the archival room. As a result, ensure that you pack a jumper or a cardigan os you may be very cold while in the archival room.

If you plan on taking any notes, bring your laptop or a pencil, as archives will not let you take in a pen due to the irreparable damage ink could cause to historic documents.

Learn to take notes well

You cannot ‘check out’ archival material as it is too old and too precious. As a result, you will need to sit in the archival room with the materials and take any notes while you are on site.  You can visit again if you need to. But time and resources are precious, so you don’t want to be going back purely because you didn’t make the most of your visit. Notes in some instances may be the only link you have to the archival documents once you’ve left the room. So be sure to study the documents well and write down anything you will need later. Noting any questions you have about the items as you go along may also assist with your understanding of the document.

Bring your camera or a phone

Bring something to take pictures of the documents. That way you will be able to go back over them once you leave the archival room. Do ask staff if photographs are allowed first though.  Taking photos is also a timesaver for them, as you won’t need to ask them for as many scans or copies.  Make sure to follow any rules about what you can use these photographs for. At many archives photos are for personal use only. Some archives may even ask you to sign an agreement to take photographs.

Spend as much time as you need

Most archives will let you stay all day on your specifically allocated day, except for lunch, so be sure to make the most of that.  Don’t leave until you are satisfied that you’ve made the most of the documents you came to view.  There is absolutely no rush. Do take your time and enjoy the unique experience of working with and holding original source material.

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Hi my name is Charis, I am a MA History of Warfare student at University of Birmingham. I have always enjoyed writing and I enjoy researching and writing about history, life, television, film and culture. I also enjoy new opportunities.