Making the Most of Your Time in the Archives

Making the Most of Your Time in the Archives

Photo by hannibal chi on Flickr

One of the most exciting (and maybe just a bit daunting) parts of some research degrees is getting to spend time in archives and special collections. Having the opportunity to look at and handle materials from past generations, or that used to belong some prominent place or person has a way of helping make your research seem somewhat more important and relevant than it might have before. My own research requires several visits to not only the University of Glasgow Library’s Special Collections (which is absolutely wonderful and every PGR should check it out at some point!), but to archives across the UK as well.

I am perhaps my most comfortable when I’m in these places. But as I’ve met and gotten to know other PGRs, I’ve come to realise that the same is not necessarily so for everyone. From first-time nerves to being unsure of how everything works, there are plenty of reasons why archives and other research libraries can seem intimidating at first glance. Once you move past these reservations, however, a whole new world of research can be found at your fingertips; here’s a little advice on how to make the most of it!

[Image Description: A sign that reads ‘British Library/British’ is shown in front of a statue of a man using a protractor. These are outside the British Library.]

Photo by fabonthemoon on Flickr

Plan Ahead of Your Visit

This is especially important if you’re only going to have access to the archive or library for a limited amount of time (i.e. on a research trip or holiday). Further, some places – like the British Museum – require advance notice or an application for research in order for you to view their collections.

The best way to figure out how to plan ahead is to visit the website of wherever you’re planning to go. This will tell you what you need to do or have prepared before your visit. Of course, there are some places where all you need is a library card or permission to access the building (UofG’s Special Collections is one of these places, and the special collections area at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library is completely open to the public). Regardless of permission to use, it’s important to at least have some idea of what you’re looking for or know exactly which items you want to view. This saves both your time and that of the archivists/librarians helping you.

[Image Description: A screenshot of the University of Glasgow Special Collections’ Rules and Regulations web page.]

Photo from University of Glasgow Special Collections Regulations Web Page

To Bring/Do or Not To Bring/Do

Archive work becomes much easier when you accept that every single archive is different. Each one has its own rules on what you’re allowed to bring in, what you’re allowed to take notes with, whether you’re allowed to take photos (and how, and how many, and with what permissions).

The best advice is to, again, first look at the website, and if the information isn’t clear, don’t be afraid to email just to be sure. The major consensus in my experiences have been the following: bags and coats must be stored in a cubby or locker, pencils only, laptops allowed, request permission before taking photos, and no food or drinks. However, there are always exceptions or stricter rules because no two archives are ever the same. Which kind of makes things more fun!

[Image Description: An example of keeping track of sources used during archives and special collections research visits (Call number, page number and description).]

Photo by Danielle Schwertner

Think Ahead While You’re Researching

One of the worst research-based mistakes you can make in the archives, which I have done an embarrassing amount of times, is forget to note titles, page numbers, or anything else you might need for future citations/references. This has only ever happened to me when I’ve used UofG’s Special Collections, so I was always able to just run over and request the items again. But this mistake could be annoyingly huge if it happens when on a research trip in a place you’re not likely to visit again. To avoid this, here’s what I do:

  •  Immediately write the basics: title, author, publisher, date, library call number

  • Before handing item back, double check you have the page numbers for every paraphrase, quote or notation you’ve made.

  • If taking photos, reference the photos in your notes with page numbers, volume numbers, and/or issue numbers.

This may seem tedious, but you’ll thank your past self when referencing your notes a few weeks, months or years later!

I might be a bit biased because I have to spend a lot of time in them, but studying in archives is genuinely one of my favourite parts of my research degree. However, like with anything, it can be easy to get burned out with it all, which is why it’s important to take regular breaks and to try to space out your different research appointments if possible. The more you make use of archives, though, the more you’ll be used to their atmospheres and requirements. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.

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