Over the last few decades there has been an ‘archival turn’ in Humanities research and in the digital era archives are becoming ever more accessible to scholars. These online sources which can be consulted nearly anywhere in the world, day and night, are definitely a huge advance but the physical archive still remains an incredibly important place for researchers.
Why Use a Physical Archive:
Firstly, not everything can be digitalised. Secondly, even within a digitalisation additional information on flysheets or pencil markings which could crucially alter the interpretation of a source may not appear. Archival research also allows a researcher to make new discoveries: seeing what the specific document of interest is classified with, consulting the inventories and speaking with archivists can truly transform a researcher’s findings.
Before the Archive:
Preparation is key. Firstly, look at the subscription requirements and make sure you have the required documents with you for your trip. Proof of identity is a common necessity, but you might need a letter from a member of University staff confirming your need to access these documents or have a list of documents you would like to consult.
It is worth contacting the archive in advance, notifying them of your visit and your research interests. The archivists might be able to let you know if there is anything else they could recommend you look at in addition to the document references you have already found. It is also worth asking if they know of any other sources conserved off-site since over time documents have moved as well, or can be divided between different buildings.
When planning your trip it is important to bear in mind the time pressure of archival research – take into consideration how long will the registration take, check how long the time for documents to be delivered is, and if there is a limit to the number of sources you can consult in any one day, not to mention the time it will take to consult the actual documents themselves.
At the Archive:
Time at the archive can be precious but efficient methods can save a lot of time later.
If you can take photos it is worth including the archival reference (in pencil) on a spare piece of paper in the shot so you can always be certain which document came from which source.
You will come across a pile of documents and not everything will be necessarily directly relevant to your research but it is worth noting what you do pass because it might be of interest to you later on or to someone else’s research.
When you consult the documents try and think about your research questions constantly and not to be tempted to get carried away. At the end of the day reflect on your findings as a whole. If you are undertaking a longer period of archival research it can be beneficial to write weekly summaries and then a monthly resume of your findings to start drawing the information together in a coherent manner.