‘How to’ Guide

Conducting Archival Research from a Distance 

This guide, divided in 4 parts (1. How to Begin, 2. How to make the most of your trip to the archive, 3. How best to use online archives, 4. How to make the most of your findings), is a result of the Remote Access PG Workshop. It provides tips on how to best plan, manage and broadcast your archival research, combining the recommendations of 23 Postgraduate researchers from a variety of disciplines including anthropology, art history, music, and Scottish Literature.


1. How to Begin: Locating and Selecting Material 

i. Find potential materials and archives for your research 
Tip: Check footnotes and sources from other people’s publications in the field and from online platforms.

ii. Contact archive (head librarian, collection manager, or chief archivist)
Tip: Do not assume everything they hold is either online or in their catalogue. Watch James Layton’s talk about research at the Margaret Herrick Library.

iii. Broadcast your project
Tip: Set up a blog, use social media and take the opportunity to tell others about your project. This can help to source materials and to have others contact you and come forward if they know materials that might be of use.

iv. Familiarise yourself with the archive and collection 
Tip: Speak to researchers who have been to the archive and check the bulletin or newsletter published by the archive to know more about staff, collection policies, departments and holdings.
What type of archive and materials are you dealing with (commercial, state, private etc.) and whose viewpoint is this offering? Watch David Pierce’s talk about research on different film trade magazines.

v. Look beyond discipline or object specific archives 
Tip: In many cases the most interesting or unexpected findings emerge from archives that may not appear directly relevant to your research. Moving beyond your discipline, medium of interest or more familiar sources invites new perspectives and readings.

2. How to Make the Most of Your Trip to the Archive: Planning and Visiting

i. Find the funds for your trip 
Tip: Ask your department and university staff (your supervisor, director of programme, department secretary, career centre, other PGRs) about possible funding available.

ii. Make early contact
Understand who among archive staff could be most helpful during your research.
Tip: Build up a relationship with the archive as this can also be important afterwards when you return to your home/University to work with your findings. Watch Karl Magee’s talk about the archivist’s perspective.

iii. Know the archive’s rules
Opening times, ordering times, money for photocopying, permissions, access policies, car parking, etc.
Tip: Don’t waste precious time at the archive waiting for materials to arrive if, for example, some can/should be ordered in advance.

iv. Develop a system for keeping track of your notes and materials
Tip: Record and store materials, whether by taking notes or photographing materials. Watch James Layton’s talk about using Google Drive to store archival documents.

v. Be prepared to change plans
Tip: Draft a work plan, but also react to the materials as you don’t know what new directions they might present. Watch Maria Velez-Serna’s talk about research on microfilm.

3. How Best to Use Online Archives: Incorporating Digital Material

i. How to search?
Tip: Work out what search terms work for your subject and period. Watch David Pierce’s talk about Lantern’s search engine.

ii. Know the database/archive
Tip: Find out what isn’t included in the database. What is missing and why? What is the search criteria? How can you accommodate this?

iii. Plan your research time online 
Tip: Establish a working method that works for you. While flexibility is an advantage of online research, you need to establish how you work best and might block a concentrated time for this research (as you would with an archival visit) or ensure that you are in the right mindset for this work.

iv. Contextualise your findings
Tip: Do not rely exclusively on the online archive’s search engine but browse through a range of materials. In the case of newspapers, for instance, it is important to check what else is on the page or in the papers beyond your specific relevant word search.

v. Take a snapshot and save the version of the webpage you are using 
Tip: Keeping track of your research material can be useful for future use and later revisions. Material can be withdrawn from the internet and database architecture can change.

vi. Consider contacting the institution that digitised the material 
What more might they have, what can they tell you about these materials? Is there any additional value in visiting this archive?

4. How to make the most of your findings: After the archive – what next?

i. Recognise future projects as you progress
Tip: Keep a note of new areas of interest or materials that may not be immediately relevant to your research. It is important to have a ‘next’ project.

ii. Select the archival material worth incorporating in your thesis
Tip: Don’t just put in everything that you have uncovered or find interesting, but establish a framework for your material and ensure that the archival materials are enhancing the work and arguments.

iii. Arrange a dataset and find ways to present it
Tip: Organise your data and find the best way to visualise your findings, i.e. with graphics, charts and listings. Watch Maria Velez-Serna’s talk about creating a geospatial representation of archival research.

iv. Present your materials beyond academia 
Tip: Consider using your materials in different ways beyond academia, such as through exhibitions, non-academic publications, blogs, talks, art works, etc. Not all of your findings/material collected will necessarily be used in your thesis.

v. Contribute to the archive 
Tip: What is missing and what can you contribute to the institutions? For instance cataloguing your sources, creating an appendix of records, transcribing manuscripts may all provide broader value to the archive.

vi. Be sure to clear rights for images and in order to use archival materials 
Tip: Don’t leave this until the last minute or rely on this for your work.