AHA Guide to Archival Research

Whether your project incorporates manuscript collections, government records, oral histories, or any other archival sources, successful research starts with a plan. The AHA's Graduate and Early Career Committee compiled this guide to help make planning your research trips less daunting. Early career researchers, from graduate students who have never spent time in the archives to junior faculty who seek best practices for their second project, may find useful tips for increasing research efficiency and productivity. Read on for suggestions on all aspects of planning an archival research trip, from coordinating logistics before you go to navigating the archive once you're there and processing your new material when you return home.

I. Before You Go

When taking a research trip, you can capitalize on both your funds and your time if you do as much as possible to prepare for your trip in advance. Here are a few tips.

A. Find funding for your trip.

  1. Research is expensive and footing the bill on your own is usually not an option. But there are a variety of funding options available if you begin your search well in advance of your trip. Note the deadlines for applications.
  2. Apply for grants or research funds at your home institution (departmental, college- or university-wide funds). Some archives are also able to offset the cost of research. State level or national grants are often more competitive, but also more lucrative.
  3. Professional historical associations like the AHA award several research grants each year. The AHA also highlights various grants throughout the humanities in a blog series called "Grant of the Week." These are drawn from the AHA's free Calendar, which has a more extensive listing of opportunities.
  4. Consult listservs such as H-Net and contact appropriate historical societies to ensure you have exhausted all options. Although it may not be possible to finance your trip with one large research grant, cobbling together smaller funds from several sources will help.
  5. If you are awarded funds, understand the limits and restrictions. Frequently, grants are given well in advance of when they can be used, so plan accordingly.

B. Plan your trip.

  1. Make contact with the staff at the archives you will be visiting and talk to colleagues who have visited the archives already. Knowledge acquired from these resources can make planning your trip a little easier.
  2. Determine the dates and times the archives will be open. In some places, the hours of operation are erratic, particularly during the summer.
  3. Plan your trip to maximize your time in the archives. Arrange lodging in close proximity to the archives. Ask the archive staff, scholars who have been there before, or scholars at nearby universities for leads.

C. Research before you research.

  1. Consult the finding aids available online, though understand that these can be limited.
  2. Speak with an archivist in advance. That person will be more familiar with the materials and may be able to recommend additional materials. Notify the archive ahead of your arrival to see if they can have the materials pulled in advance.
  3. Know the rules of the archive. What are the hours of operation? Can you park onsite or nearby? Do you need an appointment? Will you need to purchase a membership? Is there a limit to how many boxes you can have pulled each day? Can you photograph materials and/or use portable scanners?
  4. To be more efficient with your time, it might behoove you to have some materials photocopied. Be sure you understand the policies and pricing as well as the time you need to allot for this service.

II. While You're There

Being in the archive can feel both exhilarating and overwhelming. Here is some advice on how to make the most of your time and resources at your disposal while also taking care of yourself. It is possible to have a fruitful and enjoyable trip.

A. Make a plan and prioritize.

  1. Take some time to understand how the archive is organized. Ask yourself if the finding aids you consulted before your trip were exhaustive. If not, be sure to ask an archivist how to navigate the archive and help you find what you're looking for.
  2. Make a list of which materials are absolutely necessary to look at and which are less essential. Keeping your priorities in mind will help you make better use of your time. It's important to understand what you don't need to look at so that you don't feel overwhelmed with too much information.
  3. At the same time, don't be afraid to explore a little. Be on the lookout for things that are interesting and unexpected. Findings that complicate your argument are a good problem to have.

B. Make connections.

Cultivate cordial relations with the archive staff and learn the proper procedure for requesting materials. You never know when an archivist will be in a position to help you out in a crucial way, and an archivist may be hesitant to help you if you do not follow the rules.

C. Organize your findings.

  1. Use the same notetaking, labeling, and filing system throughout your trip. Be consistent and precise.
  2. When in doubt, photocopy everything you can so that you can analyze when you return home. Research can be exhausting, and you may not immediately understand how a particular source "fits" or works for you. If you copy it, you will most likely discover its purpose later. If a document is one page or less, it may make sense to retype it. If it's longer than a page, you are better off making a copy.
  3. Use technology to your advantage.
    1. Using a laptop is often better than using paper and pencil, though be aware of the archive's policy. You will also need to think about things that you take for granted like plugging in your computer to charge it while working.
    2. Taking digital photographs is a popular way to record lots of documents. Some smart phone apps (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) allow you to take pictures and then sync the file across multiple devices, limiting your chances of losing research.
    3. Take the time to become familiar with programs like DevonThink, Evernote, or Zotero that allow users to easily organize and notate sources.
  4. At the end of each day, review your material and back up your digital files and photographs. It will be easier to organize your research when it is fresh in your mind. It is also easier to spot gaps in your research and fill them before you get home. Take note of your priorities for the next day.

D. Be prepared and take care of yourself.

Reading microfilm can causes headaches, so bring a pain reliever. Dusty documents may make you sneeze, so bring allergy medicine. Archives can be cold, so bring a sweater. You may not have time to go offsite for lunch, so bring food. (Be sure to ask where it is okay to eat, though.) Most archives do not allow pens, so pack pencils and erasers. Most copy machines do not accept credit cards, so bring cash and quarters.

E. Talk to people.

When possible, strike up conversations with archive staff and other researchers over lunch or coffee. These conversations not only make a research trip less lonely, but they may also lead to new discoveries.

F. Think outside the box about what constitutes a source.

  1. Read the manuscript collections and official records, but don't forget to peruse the newspaper clipping files, oral histories, and photograph collections.
  2. Ask the archive staff about material that hasn't been cataloged.
  3. If your historical subjects are alive or have living relatives in the area, look them up in the phone book. See if you can set up some interviews.
    1. If you decide to conduct oral histories, be sure to follow the ethical codes developed by the Oral History Association and review the organization's principles and best practices.
    2. Although the Department of Health and Human Services has recommended that oral histories be excluded from federal regulations designed to protect human subjects, a final decision on this change is still pending. Please check with your institution's Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure that you are following proper protocol.
  4. Take some time to appreciate the city, village, or neighborhood that you are studying. You may gain valuable information that helps you to write about the place later.

G. Persevere.

It may take some time to find what you need. If you are frustrated, prioritize the material that you know is useful.

III. Going Abroad

Doing research internationally provides unique archival challenges for researchers. Here are a few things you should be aware of.

A. Be sure to organize all of your documents well in advance of your trip.

  1. Bring your passport and make sure it will not expire while you are out of the country. It is also a good idea to bring a second form of identification in case you are ever asked to provide two.
  2. Understand how to acquire a visa and the amount of time you will be allowed to stay in the country you are visiting.
  3. Carry copies of award letters if you have funding and any letters of introduction that you may have from your home institution or academic advisors.
  4. It is also useful to carry extra passport-sized photos for transportation passes.

B. Be prepared for unfamiliar archival environments.

  1. Do not assume that online inventories are complete. Many researchers report that they arrive at an archive only to discover much more material than could be found online.
  2. If possible, have the archive give you an advising session about the ways in which the archive is organized and cataloged. Better understanding the organizational premise of an archive will increase the likelihood of finding more relevant material. Try to communicate with the archival staff in the local language.
  3. Budget cuts mean that archives, especially at the local or regional level, hold odd hours. Be apprised of those.
  4. It is not uncommon for requested materials to take days to arrive; have a contingency plan in place if that is the case.
  5. Bring change in the correct currency for copying and lockers.
  6. Get ready to read script. Do not be surprised when 15th-century documents are not typed. You may wish to hone your language and/or paleography skills before you travel. Take notes in the original language rather than trying to translate on the spot.

IV. After You Return Home

Even though you will be exhausted after your trip, it is wise to spend some time assessing and reflecting on your findings. These tips may save you a few headaches down the road when it comes to incorporating the new material into your written work.

  1. Take a census of the material you collected as soon as possible. While the documents are still fresh in your mind, double check to make sure that everything is properly labeled. If you took digital photographs, organize them on your computer according to the structure of the archive. If you have digital copies of finding aids, save them with the corresponding material. If you have hard copies of documents, place them in manila folders that are labeled to match their location in the archive. Taking time to do this work will ensure that you do not lose track of material and that you can cite it properly.
  2. Make sure that your material is stored safely and securely, whether electronically or in paper form.
  3. Reflect on your archival visit in writing. Take note of the good finds as well as the gaps. If you plan to return to a particular archive, make some notes about your priorities for the next trip.
  4. Allow yourself some time to free write about how you think your newly discovered material will fit into your project. Ideally, you will spend some time jotting down your reflections after each day in the archive. Now is the time to compile these notes.
  5. Write a note or e-mail of thanks to the archival staff that helped you. Keep a record of these names so that you can acknowledge them in your manuscript.
  6. Some funding sources require a report on research conducted. Take care of this sooner rather than later.

Adapted by Elizabeth Lundeen (Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and Adam J. Pratt (Univ. of Scranton) from "A Survival Guide to Archival Research" and "Some Tips and Suggestions for Your Research Trip," both of which are available at the AHA's website. Thanks to Roy Domenico (Univ. of Scranton) and Suzanne Marchand (Louisiana State Univ.) for suggestions.

Approved by the Graduate and Early Career Committee, September 21, 2016