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. You may discover a little known or newly catalogued collection that you can focus on for your dissertation or project.
Visit a reading room in a record office or repository and talk to the staff - they are there to help you. Don't feel intimidated or feel that 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. Their job is to help you understand and work with their collections.
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 - to know about its context - 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 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? Could it be misleading? It will probably leave quite a bit out, and may not be very logical or well-ordered. Archives reflect human nature and a collection may not provide a well thought-out argument or consistent opinions. In fact, they may throw light on someone's doubts, prejudices and motivations; whereas published sources tend to provide a more polished output.
My research is on an individual - will they have an archive?You may be lucky, and find an archive that provides significant material about one person. For example, the Stanely Kubrick Archive, or the Ronnie Barker Collection.
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. Many archives that are deemed of particular historical importance have guides, such as the Bronte Family Manuscripts at the University of Leeds.
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. This can mean a voyage of discovery - if you don't have the time or inclination for this, then think about concentrating on a source that is well catalogued and available to you.
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 highly sought after collections may be offered for sale and may end up in other countries, particularly in the USA.
If you want to find out where there 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. They do not assess sources according to trust or bias, so they need to be used with care. 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.
A general search engine may link through to a particular collection, but it is somewhat a matter of chance whether it is listed in the first page of results. You will almost certainly need to add 'archive' or 'collection' to your search term to have any chance of finding archives through a general search engine. To get context and detailed content you do need to access the catalogue for the archive, but not all catalogues are online and even if they are, search engines don't index all catalogue pages. For large catalogues,such as library and archive catalogues, Google only indexes a small proportion of pages, and that is largely out of the control of the data supplier.
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 really good routes through to more detailed catalogues about archival holdings, and many of them will provide great contextual information about the subject.
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 key items, and you do not need to look further.
If a large collection is catalogued to item level, then you can navigate through the series and find individual items relevant to your research - it allows you to get a really good understanding of the collection. But oftentimes collections are not catalogued to this level of detail and you will need to hunt through a number of boxes and see if you can find anything relevant.
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 (a 'standard' box is typically A4 size and around 10-15cm deep), 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 Archives Hub has a map of repositories. 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 and use them in my publications?
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. Using images in publications will be subject to limitations and these will vary between record offices and between individual collections.
Gwent Record Office have a useful guide explaining why closure periods may be imposed on public, local authoirity, church and private records.
How should I cite archives?
It can be a trick business working how out to cite archives. The Archives Hub has a citation aid to help you. For example, from the description for the Tommy Cooper Collection click on the 'Cite this description' link. This gives you the basic information you will need and a suggested citation style, but bear in mind that the publisher will have a particular style. Note that we also tell you how to cite the description itself (i.e. the webpage). Universities often have their own style guides for you to use, for example, the University of Leeds referecing guide. Note that each university may have different guidelines.
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced