So you want to do Archival Research?

<I still need to proofread this, so just bear with me here, eh?>


My first foray into the archive was a success, but it took a lot of reading and learning to prep for it and even then I had some hiccups. For all the highbrow talk of qualitative methods, there is little information on the logistics, process, and day-to-day of archiving. This is meant to be a guide that clears up some of these issues in a way which is practical for first-time researchers in the modern age.

My approach (which seems to be the norm) is just to copy everything I can get my hands on, and this primer is geared towards doing that most efficiently. Plenty of people still go do the old method of reading, taking notes, and copying. This seems to be a safe route if you a) have time to spare or b) are looking for something specific. Even if you have plenty of time and know what you are doing, my method should still offer a higher payoff. A maximalist approach of scanning everything allows you to clear a lot of material in a short time and avoids the danger of missing something. Beyond being annoying and robotic, I can’t think of reasons not to scan everything.

Just by way of introduction, I am a Phd Candidate in International Relations. My project explores how democratic leaders respond to and employ subversive statecraft (think: propaganda). I am coming freshly off of archival work from the National Archives in London and the Reagan, Truman, and Eisenhower archives.


Researching in the Time of Cholera

We’re finally at a place where archives are open and should stay that way. Obviously all of this can change, but NARA just recently removed mask requirements so it seems like it should be safe. Private archives may have different standards. When I was first looking I had to delay based on fears of closure or limited hours. Not everywhere has fully recovered, and labour shocks resulting from COVID mean that some locations (Eisenhower) still have limited hours and days open. The main NARA location in Maryland seems to be less responsive according to some, while other locations (the BBC Written Archives outside London) have a massive backlog of interested researchers. If you were forced to delay research due to COVID, rest assured that you can still make up for lost time. Hiring RAs or requesting material by mail are smart ideas.

Where to Go and What to Pull?

Whether you go and where you go depend on your research question. Some questions will more or less require you to visit archives to get a satisfactory answer…I am not going to harp too much on this point.

First thing you should do once you decide to go to an archive (hopefully about two months, at least, before you travel there) is to email the archive and talk to the archivist. They can answer most of your questions and also will probably need to make an appointment for you to visit.

It is much trickier to know what things you should focus on at a given archive. This is a function of three factors:

1 – How well tread is the topic? Consult secondary sources and see what sources populate their bibliographies and footnotes. I even took a few major sources and compared their archival citations in an excel sheet. This can help you identify which boxes and documents are of interest. A widely cited document probably deserves your attention. You can also use this method to identify collections to avoid-since I am not focusing on motion picture propaganda I can avoid these files and just cite the secondary authors here to prioritize other areas.

*Pay careful attention to any material that was recently made available/declassified. Introducing new material makes your research more valuable, and a lot of times it will not be mentioned in the finding aids or sources. Search tools usually have filters you can apply to look at “most recent” files or files which were released since a certain date.

2 – How good are the finding aids? A good finding aid can basically cut out most of the guess work. The quality of these depends heavily on your topic and how important the site it. Truman did not have a finding aid for propaganda, Reagan had topic aids that indexed info, and the National Archives in London had a useful (albeit incomplete) guide. For these archives, I started with what was available and then went through the search tools and listed collections thoroughly to find the best leads. Where the finding aids are not enough, I recommend reaching out to other scholars as well as the archivists for the best possible leads. Eisenhower had a BEAUTIFUL finding aid which not only indexed everything but also had annotations to guide the researcher. In this case, I could trust almost entirely in the finding aid.

3 – How unique are the collection holdings? You can use websites like WorldCat to discover if the collections are duplicated. Since the Dulles papers are at Princeton, I could skip them free up time in the Eisenhower archives for unique holdings. Obviously, any material that is available online is easy pickings.

*If you are planning multiple archival trips, take time to weigh the pros and cons of doing archives back-to-back or not. Truman and Eisenhower were near one another so I paired them, but I ended up spacing out the rest by 1-2 weeks to give myself time at home to prepare. Doing all the archives in one go will save time, but will require more preparation and mental fortitude.

At the end of the day, you have to trust in these sources and your own judgment. Take the leap of faith. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Building Your Pull List

As you go through the finding aids, you should be making notes and copying info into an excel spreadsheet. I took a maximalist approach of entering in as many possible leads as I could find and then paring this down in the days leading up to research. By talking to other scholars, consulting secondary sources, working with the archivists, and trusting in my own instincts, I organized and color coded the excel sheet according to what my priorities were and then just worked down the list when I was on site.

*It’s never too early to build a pull list! Getting some early ideas of what to look at will help you with grant applications. Saying you want to look at the “ABC 123” series will make your project seem more promising.

For the National Archives in London all pulls are done online through the Discovery tool. Once you make a standard order (12 docs pre-ordered) or a bulk order (40 docs from the same series pre-ordered) you can request specific files, and once you are there you can put in orders for additional ones. The NARA archives go by boxes rather than files, and you have to fill out paper pulls slips. You’ll need a separate pull slip for each nonconsecutive order (i.e. John Doe Boxes 1 and 3 will need two pull slips). The pull slips are a pain, so I grab a bunch and fill them out ahead of time. They are trying to roll out a digitized system for ordering. Some presidential libraries will be willing to pull material for you ahead of time. One last note of warning: look out for anything labeled “RAC” at US archives. An RAC box is equal to 3 or more Hollinger boxes.

While you should make a good faith effort to prepare, try not to get caught up in perfectionism. You will likely miss some things of value, or leave some collections entirely unexplored, but you’ll find material which will lead your research in all sorts of new and interesting directions you had not previously anticipated. Accepting that your trip is “good enough” can be hard to do.

How Much Time Do I Need at an Archive?

This is hard and there is no answer. It depends on how fast you work (see below) and how much material there is. It also depends on how important that data is to a case study or the project. I devoted more attention to the really important cases (Eisenhower) and the important cases that other people spent less time exploring (Reagan and Thatcher). I think its good to think in terms of how many weeks and to be upfront with the archivists. They can usually give you a damn good estimate of how much time you need. Obviously, answering this question is also a function of how much time and money you have.

How much material can you get through a day…realistically? Well, doing nothing but copying (and taking a lunch break with stuff I brought) I could clear about 7 fully packed Hollinger boxes a day. This would amount to 2.5 gigs of medium resolution pdfs (or 10 gigs at the highest res). The first day is always slower since orientation takes time and you are getting your bearings.

7 is the usual, but archives are pretty irregular: Hollinger boxes aren’t always full, I might not always be scanning 100% of a box, and double-sided printing and other weird document quirks can add time. With few exceptions, page numbers are not given for each folder or document. Most archives let you pull extra material ahead of time, so this way you can at least keep your work flow continuous.

Gearing Up

You’ll need a few things to pull of your heist. First, a camera. Your phone is probably the best option, since you can get a scanning app which can output each folder into an OCR’d PDF. Second, you’ll need a method of storing data-either a cloud storage system or an SD card. Preferably, you should use both. Most scanning apps can export to cloud storage automatically, but I am old fashioned and opted for a manual style which let me keep things organized by box. Most people love the Adobe scanner-I used GeniusScan+ which was useful albeit a little cumbersome at times. The scanning app is also a good way to keep track of receipts for expense reports!

While these two things are enough, in order to REALLY make the most of your time you should also get two more things. While many archives have camera stands, they may not have enough…and some don’t have anything. This one worked great. You also want to get a bluetooth clicker which is compatible with your phone. That way you can just snap photos without keeping your hand awkwardly on your phone-I found that the clicker boosted my daily productivity by 20-30%. I bought a cheapo one that worked, although it had some issues from time to time.

Whatever your approach is, do a dry run scanning some pages at home to make sure everything works as planned.


Taking Notes

While you are working keep a notepad and pencil handy and scrawl down any interesting notes. While I don’t really read much of what I copy, I got pretty good at seeing keywords or snippets that relate to my dissertation, secondary projects, or entirely new facts and areas of inquiry. Here, I would stop to quickly scrawl down the document, folder, its relation to my research, and the exact page number in the PDF I was making. When I organize my files after fieldwork I use these notes to flag files that get priority.

Course Adjustments

In general, I copy anything and everything I see of interest without stopping. That being said, there are plenty of exceptions:

  • a lot of duplicates find their ways into archives, so I skip material if I already have a copy (unless the duplicate is marked up with annotations)
  • sometimes you can just tell something is useless, so just skip it
  • every day I take stock of the next day and make cuts or changes based on new information (maybe someone gives me a new lead to follow, or I see that a series is not as helpful as I thought)
  • when you near the end and time constraints kick in feel free to skip stuff that looks less promising

At the end of the day, trust your instincts.

PDF Management

As you work, make sure that you have some system for organizing files for identification. Maybe you name the files as you go, maybe you assign them a serial number, just make sure you can identify them after.

I left indexing and proper labeling for after my archival trips to maximize copying time. So I made sure to start each scan with a picture the folder’s identifying information for easy ID. My labeling system varies slightly depending on how the archives are organized (TNA goes by series while presidential libraries are broken further into boxes). I also use Window’s “copy address as text” feature to copy and paste named files into an excel sheet for easy indexing.

Winning Friends

You’re going to come into contact with multiple archivists, not just the one who helped you set up the appointment, and they might have different ideas of what might be best for you, so leverage this information. Also, try not to piss off the archivists…archives follow casino etiquette. All moves much be clearly telegraphed, everything has to be on the table, etc. etc.

Take time as well to get to know the other researchers and, if you have time, go out for drinks and coffee with them. Not only can they give you tips for archival work, but they might even be able to help you network, set up interviews with people they know, or point you to collections of interest they find. Try to be a good citizen and point them towards material related to their interests if you find it.

Staying Sane

After working in the archives, whether its a close reading or a mad dash to scan, you will start to lose your mind, get sleepy, etc. Be sure to bring headphones and have podcasts and music loaded up, make sure to take breaks to check your phone and hydrate, make small talk with other scholars and, finally, make sure you are taking time every day to relax and sleep, even in the early days where you are still compiling and finalizing your pull list. Also use your off days to be a tourist. You might feel weird after a while because you are just gathering data and not writing, but just remember that data collection is a huge undertaking and an achievement in and of itself. Make sure you switch hands for turning pages and taking pictures to avoid strain, and that you alternate between sitting and standing.

NEXT POST will look at what to do after your visit. It will also address what material you should prioritize, how to use sources, and how to keep organized as you write. I will draft it once I have figured out these questions myself…

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