'Research Away': Archives and Libraries
No matter your discipline, your PhD research might require you to travel away from the UofG. In my case, I had the privilege to visit both private and public archives to consult manuscripts from the sixteenth-century. Summer is a great time to embark on a research trip – if you are visiting another university then chances are the campus will be quiet as undergraduates depart for the holidays, while if you need to visit a national collection, then you can escape the tourists for a while. Whatever your reasons, I'm going to offer some top tips to help you make the most of your research trips.
We are fortunate that we have access to outstanding collections here in the UK. There are large national collections, like the National Archives in Kew, London or the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, as well as thousands of smaller, independent libraries and archival collections. Public archives permit anyone to access the building and the collections. In fact, most of the larger institutions offer cafes, conference rooms and even gift-shops. Public archives also provide a lot of information online, which means you can plan your trip well in advance. If they allow you to reserve items online, then take advantage of this, as it saves time consulting catalogues and making requests when you arrive. Occasionally, the materials you want to consult might have restricted access. Don’t despair, but contact staff who can advise you on how to make an official request to access such materials. Most often, you will need to provide a reference explaining why you need to use the originals and not a modern digital copy, but your supervisor should be able to help with this. It may also be the case, that the library holds the material but permission for access needs to be sought from copyright holders or living benefactors. If so, the library should be able to tell you how to go about getting permission, or at the very least who you need to contact to make things happen!
During your visit, do make the most of the facilities for your own enjoyment, too – take in the free exhibitions, have lunch in the gardens if the weather is good, and bring back a souvenir from the giftshop (jute bags are always a practical gift to yourself on these trips, since you will inevitably end up carrying lots of stuff).
Private archives are much the same as public ones, except that the collections belong to an individual, group or company. The best way to go about accessing private collections is to contact the library or archival staff, explaining who you are and why you would like to visit the collection. It helps to have a specific idea of what you would like to consult, but if you are at the early stages of research it can still be helpful to reach out to the teams at private archives, since they will usually know their collections inside-out and can point you in the right direction. Private collections will often have more limited access hours, since they may not have full-time archival staff, or in the case of historic properties, events and tourism can take precedent. If you can be flexible with staff in arranging your visit, they will usually go out of their way to accommodate you. But do bear this in mind when arranging your travel – you might need to rearrange plans to visit when it suits the team rather than when you prefer.
Visiting private archives can sometimes feel a little daunting. I had the pleasure of visiting Hatfield House, a fantastic historic property outside London, to use the private collections of the Marquis of Salisbury. I won’t lie, I felt a little intimidated walking up to this very impressive building, but I had the most amazing experience. First, I got to enter via a side door, crouched down to fit through and we went straight into a labyrinth of corridors! The team had already prepared my items, so I could get to work right away, and they took photographs of the materials to send via email, without cost. Rather than the stern librarians I had been expecting, they even invited me along to a team-member's birthday lunch! Plus, the weather was glorious and I was allowed to wander the grounds for free after I had done all my research.
You might be fortunate enough that everything you need to conduct your research is right here at the UofG, but sometimes the item you need to consult can be held at another university. On one occasion, in my case, the UofG didn't subscribe to a database of early modern sources. Rather than travelling all the way to London to access it in one of the national libraries, I discovered that the University of Aberdeen had a subscription. Cue a trip to the granite city! I made sure to confirm that visitors could access the database before I turned up and staff were really helpful, providing me with a temporary pass and showing me where to go. It was great to visit a library that was only a few hours away by train, meaning I could go home at the end of the day! It was also fun to visit somewhere that felt a lot less formal than the national collections – you could say I felt quite at home in a university library! Reaching out to library and archive staff at other universities can also be a helpful way of making contacts during your research.
- Plan everything in advance – always contact the staff of any archive or library, no matter the size, to confirm that your items are reserved and will be available when you arrive. This is even more important if you are on a tight schedule, since many of the larger archives store items off-site and need to transport them to the reading rooms. It is also important to plan how to get to and from the location. I was fortunate that all the archives I visited were in the centre of large towns, or a train or bus ride away from the city centre. But sometimes, you might need to travel further afield, which might mean driving or hiring a car. And some of us even need to travel abroad to visit archives, which requires a whole other level of planning!
- Take paperwork – you will be required to register for a visitors' pass at most of the larger archives. This means you will need some form of identification, such as a driver's licence or passport. In some cases, you also need proof of address, such as a utility bill or bank statement. Check out the specific requirements on the archive's website, but my advice is that it is better to have too much paperwork. And if you are using restricted materials, always carry a copy of a reference from your supervisor. While you will usually send this off electronically as part of the official request, before your visit, it never hurts to have another copy with you. This proved helpful for me on one more than one occasion, when restricted materials had been held separate to the rest of my orders, and the team needed to confirm why I wanted to use them.
- Take photographs – always ensure that photography is permitted before you start snapping away, but since this is becoming more and more acceptable, take the opportunity to photograph any details that you might forget later. When you aren’t allowed to take your own photographs, check with staff if they can take some for you. In private archives, staff are generally happy to assist and can send you the images via email. This saves you the cost of buying printed copies.
- Take notes – of everything! You should prepare a list of all the details you want to confirm from the materials you are consulting and check them off for each item. Trust me, getting all the way back home to find you didn’t take a note of something is a killer.
- Seek funding – if you need to travel to visit an archive or library then this counts as a necessary research trip. Funded PGRs might find that additional money is set aside to support research trips, meaning that you can spend a little longer at the archives. No matter your status, always check with your department administration team or with your supervisor to see whether there are any funds available to support your research trips. The College of Arts gives details of travel funds online and updates via Moodle and just this week I was contacted by my school about available travel scholarships so seek out the money!
- Make the most of it – if you are spending a few days visiting different archives in one city or even abroad, see if you can take a friend with you! You will be forking out for a hotel anyway, so if someone is free to come along and happy to pay for a train ticket, then you have some company while travelling, and can eat out and visit some tourist attractions in your free time.
Share your favourite research destinations with us and all your tips for a stress-free trip in the comments or on twitter @UofG_PGRblog!