Working with Archives
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced
I don't feel that I know how to use archives in my research...
It can be useful to gain an understanding of how to read and interpret primary sources before you embark upon your main research project; the sources that are available may influence your choice of research question. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your tutor, or to staff in an archive, about getting help with using primary source materials. Archives or libraries may offer introductory sessions where you can handle sources and learn more about how to use them.
Visit an Archive or Record Office and talk to the staff - they are there to help you. Don't feel you have to have a research topic worked out before you go; simply giving the archivist an idea of your interests and the time you have available to undertake research will enable them to help you think about appropriate archives. Talking to an archivist and thinking about sources can inspire you and help you in shaping your research topic. Archivists can also talk to you about the context of archives and how archive collections can best be navigated.
Archives were not created with the needs of future researchers in mind and this can make them more difficult to understand and use, although this is also what makes them invaluable in giving unique and often unexpected insights into past events, people and places. It is very helpful to understand why the particular archive material you are using was created if you are to use it effectively and draw appropriate conclusions.
Art & Design Archives in particular can be both a source for historical research and a great prompt for creative work!
Archivists are very happy to help you discover sources to inspire as well as to inform.
Be Inspired: "Inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere but the act of archiving has continuously been a a point of interest and inspiration for many international artists, curators and designers."
I'm not sure what sort of questions I need to ask...
You need to think about contextualizing your sources using basic questions such as What is it? By whom and when was it created? What does it say? How does it relate to the topic I'm studying? Does it agree or disagree with other interpretations of the topic? These types of questions help you to think about the evidence that original material can provide and help you to make connections that can inform your work.
It can also help to ask questions about how complete the archive is - What is missing? Who are the authors and what were they trying to achieve? Did they have an agenda?
It might help to start with your research question and break it down into smaller questions or statements, and it can help to think about key phrases or words that relate to your research. This can help to define your scope and give you focus for your research strategy.
If you are struggling to orientate yourself, it may help to think about your own 'archive' - your personal collection of material - emails, comments on Facebook, tweets, letters, diaries, photographs. Whatever it is, what does it say about you? What could others learn from it about your life, your opinions and your connections? It will probably leave quite a bit out, so they would only get a glimpse into your life. Archives won't tell you everything and what is left out is worth thinking about.
My research is on an individual - will they have an archive?
Sometimes you will find a whole resource about a person, such as Virtual Shackleton by the Scott Polar Research Institute, which keeps archives relating to antarctic exploration, or the pages about the artist John Hassell that the Surrey History Centre provide. In this case, the artist has painted many scenes of Surrey, so the archive is apporpriately kept in the county archive. Institutions will often highlight key collections through this sort of educational or research resource.
But you may not find an archive or resource like this. Not all historical figures have archive collections that have been preserved and made publicly available. It is more typical to find references to them in many different collections, possibly held in different places around the country and further afield.
Robert Graves is a good example of someone with signficant collections both held and described in different places. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive is somewhere you can search and view digital copies of letters by Graves; the collection at St John's College Oxford is described on the Archives Hub; there is a collection at the University of Victoria, in Canada, including a diary and various manuscripts; there are papers at Southern Illinois University. Of course, there will also be countless other archives where he is mentioned, or that may include letters by him.
Well-known people often leave their papers to an institution to allow them to be used by researchers, but it is important to understand that the archive of one person or organisation may not be comprehensive - it may not hold everything that the person collected. Quite often material is disposed of because it is not practical to keep everything. There may be several collections about one individual - sometimes because the materials have been separated over time. Sometimes archives are held in other countries, particularly in the USA, and highly sought after collections may sometimes be offered for sale.
If you want to find out whethere there are papers about an individual, try searching some of the national cross-searching services.
I have a subject for my dissertation, how should I set about looking for relevant archives?
Search engines such as Google are a good place to start, especially if you want to get a good overview of a person, organisation, subject or place, and draw diverse sources together. But bear in mind that they are very generalist by nature - they offer a way into more specialist sites.
A general search engine may list a particular collection; it depends how the collection has been catalogued and made available online. It can help to put 'archive', 'collection' or 'papers' in with your search term. However, not all archive collections are accessible via generalised search engines; some databases are not 'crawled' by search engines.
Example: a search for 'steam train archives' may bring back:
- The BBC Archive
- YouTube videos from film archives
- The British Pathe News archive
- Specialist steam train websites
- The National Railway Museum collections
- The National Archives website
- The Archives Hub (feature on steam trains, linking to many different collections)
- A wikipedia page, that includes external links to other sources
Many of these websites are routes through to more detailed catalogues about archival holdings, and many of them will provide great contextual information about the subject.
Often using a general search engine means you are swamped with too many resources, and you may miss key collections unless you are prepared to follow various references and links through to more specialist websites.
To get context and detailed content, it is worth using an individual archive website, or a site specifically set up to represent these kinds of collections.
You may like to try searching across collections held in the UK - please take a look at our Searching for Archives page.
How many archive collections should I be looking at?
Archive collections vary enormously in size. A collection can actually be just one item, such as a photograph album, or it can be a huge collection of 100s of boxes of papers and digital content. So, one collection may require weeks or months of investigation, or it may be possible to get something valuable from it in one day. It may be that you can find a wealth of evidence in just one or two items.
Always be aware of how large a collection is, as this will help you to plan your time more effectively. The description of the collection should tell you how many boxes/folders it is, or how many cubic metres if it is quite large.
If you have limited time, it may be practical to look for collections held within a limited geographical location. If there is a specialist archive that covers your subject, this might be a good place to start. The National Archives provides a directory of archives in the UK with a map of regions.
I'm at a university, should I be looking at archives held in universities?
If your research topic centres on a university - maybe you are looking at research carried out at a particular university - then you will want to focus on the university archives, but don't limit yourself to archives held in any one type of institution unless there is a good reason to do so. There are local archive services, specialist archive services, archives for charities and learned institutions. It is not a good idea to assume that one institution holds the most relevant information. It is better to carry out a broad search and gradually focus on collections that are most useful to you.
If you are researching a topic and have a geographical boundary, such as 'social housing in Manchester' or 'The history of Bath as a health resort', then it probably is worth starting with the local record office, as it will hold collections relating to the county or region.
Can I take pictures or get copies of archive materials?
Permission to copy may depend upon whether the material is in copyright. The copyright situation with public records is reasonably clear-cut, as they are subject to Crown Copyright. It is far more complicated when dealing with other collections of archives. Essentially literary works and other types of works are affected by copyright legislation that means there is a period of time during which the making and supplying of a copy is an infringement of copyright, unless an exception applies or unless the owner of the copyright has given permission. Archivists have to be aware of copyright restrictions as well as other legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act, and collections may also have other restrictions attached to them as a condition of deposit. The job of the archivist is to aim to make collections open for research whilst at the same time respecting legislation that may affect that access. So, most places will give permission to take pictures on a case by case basis and permission will be refused if it is an infringement of copyright. There may also be a reproduction charge.
Hull History Centre have a useful guide explaining why closure periods may be imposed.
Design for an undulating railway. From the Richard Badnall papers at the University of Salford
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced