A few things I’ve learned about archives and libraries

One of the main aspects of my research as PhD candidate is visiting archives, mostly local archives, to recover information about breweries and their pubs, architects, ceramic companies, or anything that might bring some light to the history of architectural lettering on commercial buildings. Recently, I was writing a reflection on those visits and I thought why not extending it into a blog post that might be useful for others. Please, bear in mind that I am not an archivist or librarian, all this come from experience. 

When I talk about items I mean: paper documents, photographs, books, journals, objects, … anything could be part of a collection. One item can include one single document or several documents.

Before going to the archive

  1. I prepare the main question that needs to be answered. This is fundamental to select the items that I am going to consult. At the beginning of my research that question was more unclear so the sessions at the archive were more like fishing in the open sea, now they feel more focus and therefore more effective.
  2. This relates to the previous point. Some of my visits have been very focused because I knew exactly what I wanted to explore and I knew exactly what records I was going to see. But on other occasions, I didn’t know if the records I wanted to see still exist, and if they do exist where are located. Sometimes I don’t even know if there is an archive.
  3. If there is an online catalogue I try to get familiarise with the catalogue, the records, and how they are organised. I study each section and make a list of everything that might help to answer my research question. I also prepare a database in Numbers (any other app with tables), where I add the reference number, title, year, section, and link, and I highlight the items I suspect are relevant for my research.
  4. If I am unsure about something the best practice is to email the archivist with SPECIFIC questions before visiting the archive. They might not answer all the questions, but at least they will know what are you after.
  5. And finally, I thoroughly prepare the visit: charge the camera batteries, check cables, notebooks, and very important in the UK, take some up to date letters from the bank — in case they ask for a proof of address. Also, check the opening hours. Archives tend to not to be open every day, and some of them are by appointment only. 

At the archive

  1. Read the rules, the do and dont’s, ask what I don’t understand, I ask for the wifi (they don’t always have), leave the bag, coat, food always outside, never use a pen, etc. Also, ask how many items you can have at the same time. For instance, at the London Metropolitan Archive, it is possible to order six items from the same collection but you can only keep one on your desk each time. At the British Library you can order six items, and you can have all of them at the same time. For journals that can go up to 30 at the same time. Local archives don’t have a general rule, but generally, it is possible to have several items at the same time.
  2. Get comfortable: I take my camera, laptop and phone, a notebook and a pencil, I organise things in my desk, I find out if I can plug the computer, that sort of things, so later I dont need to interrumpt the work for these little details.
  3. Go back to that database that I’ve created at home and add new columns: have I seen the item? Yes/No; Have I take photographs? Yes/No; Relevance?; Comments. All these might seem obvious and easy to remember but after seeing hundreds of items, going to a few archives, it is hard to remember everything.
  4. Try to strategical: if the records are in a bigger box, what else might be relevant from that box? If ‘fishing’, it might be better to start by having a general idea of all the different items, so instead of asking to see 6 ledges of admin letters, that might be completely useless, ask for one ledge, one mortgage, one photographic album, … That way it should easier to decide which kind of records are more useful.
  5. Working with each record: I add the information to the database as it gets to my desk before I even get to open it: the date, if am taking photographs, and very important, its relevance to the research, and I add some comments. For example, after four days at the archive in Ironbridge and seeing almost a 100 items (some included one document, but other could be 50) I won’t be able to remember which one was more relevant to answer my question if I don’t write it down.
  6. Photograph each item and each document both sides, and take a photo of the reference number. Before starting using the camera it is necessary to know the rules towards photography,  and again, each archive is different. In my case, I am taking pictures for personal/education purposes, and they tend to be cheaper or even free. But for commercial reproduction prices change and it is necessary to consult them. The British Library has only recently embraced an open policy towards taking photos, the V&A library and Special Collection has also an open policy. Archives, however, tend to be more restrictive, especially in the last few years as they have seen their funding dwindling. At the London Metropolitan Archive the pass-day costs five or six pounds for unlimited photographs. Hackney Library, Southwark, as far I can remember have a similar price, but at Tower Hamlets it is not possible taking any picture, and at Camden local archive it is possible to take no more than ten photographs at the ridiculous cost of £10. Bear in mind that there is always some paperwork involved, there is always a form with: name, address, etc, list of items photographed, an agreement to use them only for personal/educational purposes, and it takes time to fill.

After the archive

  1. I download all the photographs and I make one folder per item (one item is one record, they might have one document or a 100, but it has only one reference), I also change the name of the images. This is a bit boring, but it is very helpful in later stages. After reading Stephen Coles comment (see the end of the text), I’d like to add that I don’t change them manually, there is a submenu in Mac for renaming batches of files. However, I am trying an app called NameMangler that helps to make the process more automatised.
  2. I look again at everything I’ve seen and I start drawing some conclusions. Was the initial question answered? Did the visit meet the expectations? Is the finding useful? Do I need to go again? If so, with the same criteria/question?
  3. If possible, write a report.
My temporary desk at Lambeth Archive.

Using a rule it is recommended, even if it is not straight as in this case. Photographing the object is also very important, not just the content.

At Camden Archive, using the space.

Southwark archive has become one of my favourites, even if the image seems a bit clumsy it is very well organised, and the archivists are absolutely helpful and dedicated.

Taking the space of four researches at Southwark Archive.

Photographing not just the content, but also the object. It might tell another story.

This is how my files look like. All photographs separated under reference number and renamed.
This is the document that I used when visiting the archive at Ironbridge, includes:
 reference, title, date (of the item), link to the online catalogue, description, seen (by me) and date, photographs, relevance, comments.

3 replies on “A few things I’ve learned about archives and libraries”

Love this! Will share it with researchers who visit Letterform Archive.

“I also change the name of the images. This is a bit boring, but it is very helpful in later stages.”

I assume you’ve seen the Finder’s powerful renaming utility hidden behind the contextual menu when you select multiple files? That has saved me so much time.

yes! I use that change all the names. Before I used to do it with Bridge, but the Finder is better. Now I am trying something to automatise it better, I want to change the name and the folder and everything inside with one order, and the app NameMangler can do that, I could add this to the post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.