A Survival Guide to Archival Research
Barbara Heck, Elizabeth Preston, and Bill Svec, December 2004
From the Archives and Research column of the December 2004 Perspectives
Advanced preparations help your archive research experience to be efficient, fun, and less daunting. Here are some tips to help both neophytes and the experienced in their quests for primary sources.
Use your people skills. Establish an excellent relationship with the reference person or archivist. Remember their names. After a while, you begin to know who knows what about what.
Learn the archives' photocopying policies before you even begin your research. Know the costs, procedures, forms, restrictions, and timeframe. Delays, fees, and frustration can accumulate if they do copy outsourcing or if sensitive materials require professional handling. All necessary details in determining whether your research gems should be hand-scribed or conveniently copied. Planning ahead can save time (even money) in the archives.
Bring quarters, the preferred currency of most machines, for making copies from the self-serve copier, copies from the microfiche reader, or even parking meters; cash for other copying needs.
Bring pencils and erasers. Archives do not allow pens due to the possibility of ink leakage. Leave your ballpoint pen at home and bring the old #2 pencil.
Bring snacks, particularly if there are no vending machines or convenient stores nearby. Snack bars, raisins, and fruit provide much-needed energy and keep growling stomachs from annoying others. Snacks must be eaten outside of the research room, though. No chocolate messes on the manuscripts.
You may encounter documents with rusty staples and fasteners. Bring Neosporin and Band-Aids. Some nasty files will make you wish you had that tetanus booster.
Plan on eyestrain and headaches. Reading microfiche can induce a form of snow-blindness. Bring your favorite headache medicine.
Bring a magnifying glass: hand-held or eyeglass type. Indispensable for those of us who are middle-aged and need longer arms to read, and helpful even to younger eyes if the copy is faint.
Archives can be dusty, and may induce allergy attacks. Bring a decongestant. (Non-drowsy is recommended,; like hunger in point #5, snoring may annoy other patrons.) Depending on the archive material, a dust mask may be warranted. A fashion faux pas but effective.
Documents can be dirty and drying. After a few hours working with them, your skin begins to feel like some of the older documents, dry and cracking. Pack some waterless cleaning packets and/or hand lotion. After a few hours, your skin begins to feel like some of the older documents, dry and cracking.
Many repositories (especially those located in universities) allow researchers to bring their laptops into the search room, provided they can physically search the computer as the researcher leaves (evidently, documents have had a funny way of ending up in the strangest places on a laptop).
Leave valuables at home. Archives typically require that bags, purses, computer cases, etc., remain outside of the archive room. Your choice, but we wouldn't trust bringing our laptops. Caution and wariness should apply to both our research and to our stuff.
Check the hours of the repository before you arrive. Many small institutions close for an hour at lunch, are only open a few days each week, require appointments, or otherwise keep odd hours. Some even require submission of requests for materials a day in advance of your arrival. Surprises are not fun when they are inconvenient.
If the repository has a web site, thoroughly review it in advance. Most sites state hours, rules, and have contact information. Of course, take advantage of any online finding aids and pathfinders for preliminary, or even in-depth, research.
— Barbara Heck, Elizabeth Preston, and Bill Svec, are public history graduate students at North Carolina State University.