Doing It for the First Time: A Beginner’s Guide to Primary Research Pt. 1

Well the summer vacation is nearly upon us and for those of you just finishing your second year thoughts will be turning to dissertations and the work that you have to do over the coming months. Beyond actually deciding what you’re going to spend the next academic year working on and the idea of having to write ten thousand words on one single topic,  probably the most daunting prospect is having to face doing a significant amount of primary research. Most of you will have done a far amount of research already – every time you write an essay or prepare a presentation there will be some degree of research involved –  but it has probably been guided by your tutor to some extent and based either on online resources or what is held in your own institution’s library. Depending on what you’ve chosen to work on for your dissertation, chances are you’re now going to have to go further afield in the coming months to other libraries and archives in order to track down the sources you require and do so entirely of your own volition.

In the first of this two part focus on conducting primary research we will be thinking specifically about that first visit to the archive. This kind of research trip is a rite of passage for all historians and your tutors will probably be able to regale you with many archive-related tales, particularly those academics who work in non-British archives. While chances are that you’re not going to need to take your own coveralls or handle documents carefully in case some kind of venomous creature has snuck in between the pages for this piece of work, even the most salubrious of research environments can be daunting if you’re unfamiliar with how things work.



I spent several weeks working in this dark, filthy and entirely uncatalogued archive in Moscow – it was fantastic!


So, in order to help you negotiate your first trip to the archive, we’ve asked archivist-extraordinaire Lizzy Baker to answer what we think are the most common questions that students will have about archives, how they function and how you access them. Do bear in mind though that this is only general advice and you should always check the specific institution’s website for full details of how they operate before turning up.


Q. How do I find out what an archive has?

The starting point for archival research is a catalogue of the collections. This is most likely to be an online catalogue but sometimes printed catalogues are published too. There are websites such as the Archives Hub or the ‘Access2Archives’ section on the National Archives website which compile information from a lot of different archives. However, as great as it is to have all this information in one place, there is a chance this hasn’t been updated for a while so it’s best to check the archive’s own website which will normally host their own online catalogue. This catalogue will be more frequently updated than the hub sites and will usually also have helpful information on visiting that specific archive.


Q. Am I going to be able to see everything an archive has by looking on their online catalogue?

No – the catalogue is an outline of what is in a collection to enable you to order it to consult. The catalogue may just tell you that document reference XX from the collection of Family Y is a letter from Person A to Person B discussing issue C dated 1805. You will need to actually consult this letter in an archive search room to read it in full.

In addition to lacking this specific information, it’s important to remember that most archive also have uncatalogued material – it takes a long time to catalogue an archive collection and new material will be deposited all the time. You may find brief entries that describe an entire collection that isn’t catalogued yet. Ask the archive in question about any access to uncatalogued material. You can do this via email or on the phone in advance to avoid unnecessary trips and wasting time.


Q. Is there material held in an archive that I’m not going to be able to look at?

Yes. Most archives will hold some material which is closed for consultation. This can be for a variety of reasons. The main one will be the sensitive nature of the records themselves and the possible personal data contained in them – this would include medical records, school records or criminal archives. Documents pertaining to national security may also be closed, particularly those from the latter half of the twentieth century – anyone wishing to use governmental records will need to check that the documents they wish to use have actually been declassified.

Some material may also be unavailable due to its fragile condition – it may be unsuitable for consultation or being repaired by a conservator. As the key job of an archive is to preserve documents for posterity, we have to consider what impact a user consulting a document may have and this can have an impact on access. Lots of archives are also carrying out digitisation projects too which means some records may be off site being scanned or photographed. Always check that the material you are interested in is available before you visit.


Q. Can I order things in advance?

For most archives yes, and this is very helpful. Some archives have an online order form, others will just ask you to email in a list. Double check your references in the catalogue first and make sure that the things you are ordering are individual files or items not entire collections of thousands of documents! Be aware that if the archive you are visiting opens in the evenings or on the weekend then you might have to pre-order documents to consult if you visit at this time as there will be fewer staff working and so document retrieval may not be available outside of normal working hours.


Q. What is the difference between a document, a file and a fond?

Archives collections are organised hierarchically. There may be thousands of documents within each collection and to make the collection intellectually accessible it will need to be given a structure. Sometimes this structure will have been set by the record creator but often the archivists will need to devise a way to organise the collections. This will start with an overall catalogue entry for the entire collection. Then there will be sections – ie legal, financial, personal etc. Within each of the these sections there will then be series or ‘fonds’ and this enables the collections to be divided up even more. For example, in a family and estate collection a section on personal records might be divided into series based on individuals such as ‘Series 1: Papers of the 1st Earl’, Series 2: Papers of the 1st Earl’s Brother’ etc etc. Below this level there will then be files – these could be groups of correspondence, ways of keeping the legal papers for a case together, or all the deeds from one property for example. Below that will be the individual item or document – this is a single record.


Q. How can I tell how much material there is on my topic? Are all files and folders a standard size?

No the size of the files can vary enormously from a single item to hundreds. Normally the file size will have been determined by the creator of the records. Often an archive catalogue will give you an idea of the amount of information; for example it might say ‘Incoming correspondence 1915 c. 100 items’. Not all documents will be files – they might be volumes or individual sheets. A file will normally have been made by the record creator because all the items in it have a connection, for example ‘documents concerning property purchase in X’. Again it’s important to try and get as much information as you can about the volume of material you may be dealing with as this will determine how long your visit needs to be, and indeed whether it’s worth visiting at all.


Q. Will I need any proof that I’m a student to access material?

It depends on the archive you are visiting. Check their website or contact them before you go and check what ID you will need. A private archive may ask for a letter of recommendation from a supervisor. A local authority archive is likely to be a member of the County Archives Research Network or CARN which is a shared scheme where you can be issued with a reader’s ticket in one of the 50 participating offices that is valid in all the others. Membership of the scheme is free but you will need to provide proof of your name, signature and address to be issued with a card.


Q. What equipment should be brought and what should be left at home?

The most important thing you need to bring is a pencil! Archives don’t allow pens into their research rooms even for taking your own notes as the risk of the documents getting damaged or altered is too high. Ideally bring quite a few – the best pencils to use if you are handling original archives are 2B. Check the archives website before you visit to see their research room rules – as a general policy don’t try to bring in anything that could damage a document such as pens, scissors or corrector fluid. For security reasons you won’t be allowed to bring any bags into a research room – this will include laptop cases but some archives will provide you with a clear plastic bag to carry your belongings and there are usually lockers to stash items that you can’t take with you in. If you plan on taking you laptop or tablet then check to see if you are allowed to charge them – some archives may need you to have a PAT certificate for any electronic equipment. If the archive you are visiting allows photography then do take a camera. Don’t take in a mobile phone and if using a camera, laptop or tablet then turn off any beeps or alerts. Some archives are also very strict about any paperwork or notes that you can take in and may not allow loose sheets of paper. A proper bound notepad is usually the best bet plus it minimises the chance of you losing notes as you go.


Q. Is it possible to make photocopies of original documents?

Sometimes. In most cases this photocopying will be carried out by staff who are specially trained to copy the archive material without damaging it. All archives will have a policy of not copying any documents which may be damaged in the process – this could be because they are very old, have a wax seal attached, have sensitive colour pigments or are larger than the A3 copier plate. There will also be restrictions on the copying of documents bound as books as placing them on a copier can break the book’s spine. If the items you are interested in cannot be photocopied then ask the staff about other options – some archives may have an overhead book scanner or allow photography.


Q. Is there a standard policy regarding taking photos of documents?

No. Each institution will have its own policy on taking photographs which will depend on their situation and the archives held. Many archives will also charge for the right to take photographs (either by the day or per shot). Generally you won’t be allowed to use a flash as repeated flash photography can damage the archive. You may be asked to fill in a copyright form and put a small slip in the corner of your photo with the document reference on it. Many archives have camera stands which makes taking good photographs much easier – you might need to reserve a time slot on the stand if it’s available.


Q. Can I get copies of material posted to me if the archive is not somewhere I can easily reach?

Quite often this will be possible for a charge. Most archives will have some reprographic service for photocopying or scanning items. However all will have strict policies on what material can be scanned. Asking for copies will also normally mean that a staff member will need to order up the archive and assess the suitability of the items for copying and then count the pages to give you a cost quote. For busy archives this can be a time consuming process so make sure you leave enough time to get your copies.


Q. And finally, what is your top tip for the first time archive user?

Talk (nicely) to the archivists – they will often know the collections they work with better than anyone else and be able to suggest alternatives, other angles or collections held elsewhere. Getting an email to say thanks for the help is always appreciated too!

In our next post we will be sharing some of our top practical tips for carrying out primary research so watch this space!


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