Archives and Your Dissertation
Getting to your third year without ever having entered an archive is not unusual. I’ve been to plenty of museums and historic places, but I’d never found cause (or time) to head to an archive before I started my dissertation. My library had all the secondary research I could need, and primary material for essays was often lifted from lectures and seminars. Physical, in-person archives contain millions of primary documents in a variety of formats and are located across the world. More recently, digital humanities projects have become more mainstream, offering collections of data held online, either in an open-access or subscription format.
If you’re in the process of choosing your final year dissertation project, it’s important to bear in mind which archives you might need to use during your research. Archives have a reputation of being quite intimidating, hushed environments with rather scary archivists, but nowadays archives are being increasingly modernised in reflection of the needs of today’s researchers.
When choosing a dissertation topic, have a think about the logistics of your research. If you have ties to a certain area, a dissertation on that area may be a fantastic choice, as you can carry out research at the archive during your summer break from university. However, if the archives you will need are geographically further away, factoring in the time you will need, their opening hours, as well as the cost of hotels and train tickets will all come into play. Some universities have funds to support research costs, but for an undergraduate history dissertation, the expectation is generally that you will choose a topic that aligns with your budget. If you haven’t already, I’d advise you to invest in a Railcard to save you some money on travel. Lots of archives are located in London, such as The National Archives and the Imperial War Museum, to name just two, but there are many more scattered across the UK’s major cities. If you’re not yet at university, it may be an idea to check your chosen institution’s proximity to the bigger archives, so when the time comes, it will be much easier to commute.
Local records offices and smaller archives near your permanent address contain fascinating records from your local area. Their staff may be volunteers or amateur archivists however, so be aware that they may not be able to offer as much help as a professional archivist at The National Archives. They may only be open once or twice a month, so if possible, make a list of the records you need, make contact with the archive and arrange your visit well in advance. Heading to a smaller centre is a great place to start if you feel intimidated by the prospect of visiting a larger archive, as there will be less people, less pressure, and the opportunity to learn some archive etiquette. Local archives are usually eager to welcome younger researchers, and I’ve found smaller centres to be really accommodating to fledgling historians.
So called ‘rules’ vary from archive to archive and are dependent also on which documents you require. Have a look on the website beforehand to give you an idea of what to expect, as well as what to bring. Generally, some generic rules I’ve found in archives are:
· Bags must be left outside the reading rooms (where you will touch and read the documents that you have ordered), usually stored in lockers.
· Drinks are not permitted anywhere except outside and within designated eating areas.
· Pencils are the only form of writing material that is permitted, but you can often borrow them.
· Only a certain number of documents are allowed on your allocated desk at one time, the rest will be held by the attendant at a desk nearby.
· Laptops, phones, and other devices must remain on silent; some archives require you to purchase a permit before you can take photos with your phone.
· A quiet work ethic is essential, as to not disturb other users.
· Documents must be handled with care; attendants will advise you if a document is particularly fragile, and may provide a special stand for a book to preserve its spine.
If you’re worried about making a mistake, please don’t let yourself be put off from visiting. Archives have digital offerings, but they may not cover your entire scope of research so some in-person archival work may still be necessary. If you’re unsure, attendants that monitor the reading rooms are happy to answer questions, they’re not paid to tell you off! If you’re reminded about etiquette, remember it’s not personal, and it’s more about the safety and preservation of the documents that you’re handling, rather than you!
Now I’ve covered some of the “dos and don’ts”, I’ve put together a checklist of how to choose an archive, make contact, and carry out your research. A bit of forward planning will make the process considerably easier to fit around study and other commitments, instead of having to rush through your research at the last available moment.
1. Research archives that are aligned with your topic. Simply googling “archives in…” or “archives of…” will help narrow down your search. Discard any archives that you don’t wish to travel to because of the distance. If at this step you realise that the major archive for your subject is too far away, it may be advisable to rethink the scope of your research to make sure that you don’t miss out on key primary sources.
2. Make a list of the archives that you need to visit. Note down their opening hours, location and how you would get there, as well as the cost of your travel.
3. Read up on entry requirements. Some archives will need a letter of entry from an academic, so contact your dissertation supervisor who will be able to provide this for you. Archives do this often because their reading rooms are in heavy demand, or that they don’t want their time wasted. You may also need to apply for an identification card too, so make sure to fill in any online forms in plenty of time.
4. Plan your research. Go through the catalogue and decide which sources you need to see. Prioritise carefully, as many archives will only allow you to order a certain number of documents for each visit. This means that when you arrive, your documents will be ready and waiting so you can jump in without wasting any time. Also draw up a small back-up list, in case any documents are undergoing restoration or have been loaned out so are unavailable for you to use. Some archives do allow you to order more materials on the day, so if you have time, this list is already there.
5. Place your order. You may need to fill in an online form or simply email the archive, but now it’s time to make your visit official. Chose your date (and time slot if necessary) and order your documents. You’ll usually need the document’s archive number, so make sure you add those to your list in step four.
6. Receive confirmation. Once you’ve sent everything off, archives will get in touch with you to confirm your visit and the documents you need.
7. Get going! Make sure to pack a good lunch (to eat elsewhere), a few pencils, your laptop and charger and any documents you need to take with you. Wear some comfortable clothes and plan your journey to give you plenty of time to sign in once you arrive.
The main thing to remember is that archival research is a staple pastime of historical research. If you’re considering postgraduate study, your dissertation is a great opportunity to get familiar with archives before you’re left to your own devices. Managing your research is an important facet of time management at university, just like secondary research requires planning at the library. If you’re unsure which archives you need to access, ask your dissertation supervisor for some recommendations!