Into the Archives: tips for your first research trip

Into the Archives: Tips for your first research trip

On a chilly January afternoon I joined a handful of fellow students in a parking lot on the campus of UNC Wilmington. The late Dr. Bill McCarthy, professor for our senior seminar on the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, arrived shortly in a rental minivan and we loaded our bags into the back of the vehicle. Armed with packs of Oreos and CDs featuring Elton John’s greatest hits, we headed north on Highway 17 for the journey from Wilmington to Jockey’s Ridge near Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Little did I know that this research trip would be the first of many to span the Atlantic over the next decade.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, NC (Photo by Author)

When we arrived in Nags Head, we spent two days conducting research at the State Archives of North Carolina’s Outer Banks History Center branch in Manteo. In addition to our own time to research for our upcoming senior seminar projects, one of the archivists arranged for us to have a ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour of the stacks where we viewed a wide range of manuscript and visual materials — not to mention an off-season tour of the Roanoke Island Festival Park. While I didn’t find any ground-breaking manuscripts to support my own research questions about piracy in the early eighteenth century, it was certainly a trip to remember.

I regularly spent time in various North Carolina archives during my master’s program and even more so during my PhD at the University of St Andrews, which has taken me into archives and libraries both in the US and the UK. It’s an exciting venture, full of possibilities to track down clues to the past. But there are a few things to know before you go!

If you are considering a research trip for the very first time–whether you are an undergraduate, postgrad, or a member of the public who is interested in history–here are some tips to consider before heading out on your first archives adventure.

Erskine Letter
National Records of Scotland, GD268/269 (Photo by Author)


  • Get to know your archive – It might sound obsessive, but get to know everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, about the visitor rules and details for your prospective archive. What days are they open? During what hours? Do they close for lunch (some small repositories do!)? Do you have to register ahead of time or obtain a reader’s card? Will you need a letter of introduction from an academic supervisor? Is there WiFi in the reading room? Can you photograph materials? What do the finding aids or catalog offer? You don’t want to be caught off guard by issues that are clearly addressed on an archive’s website.


  • Get to know the area – Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself two hours into an archives session and “hangry.” I try to fill up on a satisfying, but not-too-heavy, breakfast if I’m going for an all-day session, but what about lunch? Libraries will obviously not allow food or drink, so you’ll need to scout out the immediate vicinity for food options–especially if you find yourself lagging and in need of a coffee at 3PM. Some libraries have their own cafes. Google maps might also give you a hint as to what is within walking distance. A nice walk during a lunch break is often just what one needs to break up a long day in the archives.


  • Contact a member of staff – I try to do as much assessment of relevant materials in an archive’s catalog or finding aids as I can, but sometimes it can be really helpful to get in touch with a member of staff at the archives before you actually make your trip. Now, this is not to say that you should expect an archivist to do your research for you! Make a list of the types of materials in their collections that you think might be most helpful. Add in a list of the research questions you are trying to answer. Ask an archivist if they have suggestions based on those related items and your research questions. You never know what obscure item they might pull out of the stacks for you!


  • Make a plan of what you want to see and how you will see it-  Once you’ve scoured the catalogs and finding aids with keywords and names, make a list of the collections and items you most want to see on your trip. How much time will you have to research? Bear in mind that getting through material might take longer than you expect, especially if you have to wait for specific request fulfillment times (not all repositories are on-demand and not all materials are kept on-site). When I make my list, I note specific boxes or folders of interest and I prioritize the entire list with the highest priority collection to be viewed first. For each collection that I view, I keep a running Word document with detailed information for each level of the collection that I view or photograph. For example: Full collection citation, Box Number, Folder Number, Item description. Unless photography is restricted, I try to take good quality photos of items instead of painstakingly transcribing documents while in the archives.


  • Pack appropriately – In nearly every circumstance, you will be given locker space at the archive to lock away your belongings before entering a reading room. I often make sure to have something like a granola bar or a water bottle in my bag for a quick snack while on bathroom breaks. I also like to bring a light cardigan or jumper to layer over whatever I’m wearing that day, as the AC or heat could be difficult to judge (On one archive trip in July I found myself in a reading room where the AC had broken down and it was 99 degrees out, but the next day the unit had been fixed and there was a bit of a chill in the room). In the actual “room where it happens” you will need only a few things. I would suggest: laptop or tablet with a full battery, point-and-shoot camera/smartphone (fully-charged!), a legal pad of paper or small notebook (these will be searched by staff), pencils, any chargers/adapters for your electronics (though there may not be convenient outlets).


  • For heavens sake, back up your data! – No matter whether you are photographing materials, transcribing as you go, or just taking copious notes, do yourself a favor and back up your data. Most of my work is automatically synced to a cloud-based server, but at the end of the day, take a few minutes to plug your camera’s SD card into your laptop and dump the photos you’ve taken on to your hard disk, so that you can sync to the cloud or make another copy onto an external drive. I also make a point of sorting everything out into folders by collection and repository. In larger collections, I sort these further according to boxes. Taking the time to not only back up your research data, but to label it clearly, will save you lots of future headaches.

Getting into the archives is one of the most exciting parts of doing research. At the same time, it requires a bit of planning ahead. Sometimes even the most well-planned sessions can leave a researcher with little relevant material at the end of the day–but don’t get discouraged! Persistence and planning will pay off.

Have questions or more recommendations? Leave a comment below!

Header Image Source: International Committee of the Red Cross Archives

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