Visiting an Archive
You may wish to consult an archive collection, in which case you are likely to need to visit a repository or record office - a collecting institution that provides a reading room where you can consult the materials that they hold.
You will sometimes need to contact the repository in advance to make an appointment to consult the materials. Some reading rooms have quite limited opening hours, or limited space, so it is best to check before you go....and check whether there is a charge for entry. You can also ask about their policy on using a camera if you would like to take digital copies.
You may need a reader's ticket, which will require registration. Some record offices are part of the Archives Card scheme, where you register and your ticket is valid for all those participating in the scheme.
Archives are very rarely on open access, so you usually order what you would like to see and it is brought to the reading room. Some offices recommend ordering in advance, as this can save you time. Otherwise, you may have to wait for the staff to retrieve your material from the store.
If you know the collections or items you want to look at, take note of the title and the reference number in order to give these to the staff when you arrive at the reading room.
The original material is not always available for use and surrogates may be provided. This may be because the originals are fragile, damaged, or heavily used.
Some parts of a collection may be closed for a period of time - not open to view - because information is sensitive, e.g. school records that may refer to living people. Public records in the UK are usually released after 20 years (reduced from 30 years in 2013). Online descriptions of collections usually include information about closure periods on collections.
It is worth being aware of the size of the archive collection you want to view - some are just a few items, some are hundreds of boxes. You can usually order a few boxes at at time, depending upon the nature of the material. Fragile and valuable documents may be provided just one at a time.
Some archives will not be in English, and sometimes they are not easy to read. Descriptions of archives usually include the languages they are written in, so it is worth taking note of this.
Archives only allow pencils to be used in the reading room. This is to lessen the chances of damange to the documents.
The popular view is that you have to wear white gloves to handle archives, but this is rarely the case. They may be recommended for fragile items, but each individual office will have its own policies on this. It is more likely that you will be asked to use supports and 'book snakes' to prevent over-handling the pages of rare books and archives.
Many repositories have sockets for laptops, and wireless internet available, but it is worth checking this before you arrive.
You may be able to get copies made of parts of archives, either photocopies or photographs. Each repository will have its own policy on this, and it often depends upon the condition of the material. Material may be in copyright, and therefore you will not be able to take copies. There is a concept of fair dealing which allows limited exceptions to copyright, and the archivist can advise about this.
Increasingly repositories allow the use of digital cameras for out of copyright materials, but policies do vary, and you may not be allowed to take photographs of fragile materials. There may be a cost, possibly a daily permit for using a digital camera.
If you are in doubt about any aspect of visiting or consulting an archive collection, it is a good idea to check with the repository you are visiting before setting off.
Reading rooms, where you consult archives, often have guidlines about use of archives. Here is a typical document giving guidelines for handling archives.
Explore the rich collections of the Rambert Dance Archive in this YouTube video:
A fun grand tour of the Hull History Centre, created in Minecraft, gives an idea of the space and the concept of an archive (although archives don't usually allow flaming torches!):
This page is part of a tutorial: Using Archives: A Beginner's Guide