If you are a grad student in the humanities, odds are that you will have to make a trip to the archives at some point in your academic career.
Archives can range from homey rooms in a heritage center to imposing vaults in state and national archives. Oftentimes, researchers travel long distances to review what an archive has to offer. Since time is so limited, how can you make the best out of your time at the archives?
University of Central Florida Department of History faculty and students offer some quick suggestions on how to have a successful trip to the archives. If you have anything to add to this list, please leave a comment below!
Holly Baker, Graduate Student
- “You must have a research question in mind that you want to answer. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information in the archive, so you have to stay focused on that research question.”
- “Identify which records you want to view in advance. At the Richard E. Norman Collection at Indiana University, there were 4000 items to see in a short matter of time. It is a good idea to utilize the finding aid for the collection and make sure that you know exactly which items you want to look at before you arrive at the archive. However, what you want to see may not be listed online. That is why it is crucial to communicate with the archivist well in advance to let them know what you are looking for. The archivist can be your biggest ally during your research.”
Dr. Connie Lester, Associate Professor of History
- The archivist is your best friend. Treat him/her with respect and arrange an appointment to talk about your research. He/she may have suggestions for collections that you had not considered. Thank him/her with a note after your visit and acknowledge their assistance in your finished manuscript.”
- “Contact the archivist ahead of time to request that your first selections will be ready when you arrive. Some materials may be stored off-site. It can sometimes require hours to obtain the off-site materials.”
Sarah Schneider, Graduate Student
- “Research the subject prior to arrival. Strong background knowledge in the subject you are researching (to the extent possible) is important for an effective trip to an archive. This will greatly help by giving you a general understanding of the topic, will help you sort through material and find what is relevant to your research, and allow you to be more knowledgeable in conversing with archivists and others who may be assisting you in your research. It may also point you to less obvious but related materials in the archive that would be of use.”
- “Research the archive prior to arrival. Researching the archive’s collections and their research policies will greatly cut back the time needed to look through finding aids and prevent any bad surprises about what is not allowed in the archives. This includes policies about what note-taking materials are allowed in the archives, if there are lockers, if there is Internet access, and whether photographs are allowed. Knowledge of the archive’s collections is also very important (to the extent possible ahead of time) because it will allow you to plan out what sources (and even boxes or files) are most important for your research.”