In the Archives with a Professional Historian

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My tools for a productive research session. 

I am wrapping up nearly five months of research for my residency project this week. This is by far the largest research project I have taken on. I spent weeks at local historical societies, agency repositories, and the National Archives and Records Center. It was a great opportunity to hone my research skills, discover new tools, become more efficient in my work, and much better organized.

I want to take the mystery out of what historians do all day. This blog is about what it is like doing research in an archive, the tools I use, and some of the tips and tricks I have picked up over the years. I believe anyone can do historical research, and indeed they should! However, there are occasions when you should call in a professional. Historians—if they’re worth their salt—possess the necessary expertise and tools to find what you need. They know what questions to ask, and how to go about answering them. That’s why you should hire them!

Step One: Choosing a Repository 

All repositories are created differently so it is important to choose wisely. First, you need to identify your research question. What do you want to learn? Your inquiry needs to be specific but not too narrow. If you are too broad an archivist might have a hard time helping you. You may leave disappointed if you are too specific. Choose a repository that is most likely able to answer your question(s). If you have a local question, consider a community historical society or library.  Look into federal archives if you are interested in national policy. Also, an archive is not a grocery store—it is not a place to browse or wander aimlessly. Go with purpose.

Step Two: Planning Your Trip 

Research requires a lot of stamina and full concentration to make the most out of a session. Research trips can also be expensive depending upon how far you have to travel. The last thing you want is an unexpected surprise that might take away from your work. Be sure to know the organization’s hours and location. Calculate the time it will take to get there with traffic. Try to review finding aids before you go so you can tell the archivist what you would like to look at in particular. Some small repositories are only open by appointment so make sure you contact the appropriate person. It also does not hurt to talk to the archivist ahead of time to let them know what you are looking for. These people know the collections like the back of their hand and are such a good resource. Do not be afraid to ask–this is what they are here for!

Places like the National Archives have some pretty strict policies so it is important to review them before hand. Better yet, talk to someone that has already done work there for advice on what to expect. It gets distracting and frustrating when an archivist yells at you because you do not know the rules (which are not always readily available). I was fortunate in having a friend help me through my first visit at the National Archives. I have tried to pass my good fortune forward by helping colleagues on their first visits. I still get yelled at at least once a day at the National Archives. Sometimes you forget things. Like forgetting to put your phone on vibrate and leaving to put in your request slip when your boyfriend tries to call you.

Step Three: Having the Right Tools 

I can fit all my tools into one book bag that I can pack and unpack in minutes. I hate dealing with a bunch of different bags, especially if you have to go through security. Here is a list of what I keep in my bag:

-Credentials: Some places require identification. The National Archives, for example, requires you to get a research card during your first visit. It is good for a year.

-MacBook Pro: This laptop was my big purchase I made this year with scholarship money from MTSU. My last computer was four years old and unreliable, and my MacBook has proved to be a workhouse.

-Flatbed Scanner: I bought a Canon LiDE 210 scanner for around a hundred bucks three or four years ago and I still use it all the time. I learned quickly at the National Archives that copying material is EXPENSIVE and a PAIN. I can scan all my documents into searchable .pdfs. I have noticed that fancy contractors at the National Archives are starting to use cameras mounted on arms that attach to the table. It looks to be faster than my scanner, but I do not know how much time it takes to set up and how expensive the equipment is.

-Smart Phone: Sometimes I will run across something too large for my scanner, usually a map or drawing. I will use my phone to take a quick picture. This is good if you just need it for personal reference. You will need a large scanner if you want to reproduce something for a publication.

-Clear plastic bag for cables: All those electronic devices come with cords and cables that you will need. Most places require you put your belongings in a locker, which leaves you trying to juggle all your equipment. National Archives lets you put your cables in a clear plastic bag. I use a freezer bag. It keeps everything in one place, is easy to grab, and keeps security happy.

-Quarter: Make sure you have change for lockers! Unless you want to try to bum one off of a fellow researcher.

-Legal pad and pencil: A local historical society once denied use of my scanner. Sometimes you have to go old school with paper and pencil. Do not let an archivist see you with a pen!

-External hard drive and cloud storage: I took a twitter poll a few weeks ago asking what was better: external hard drive or cloud storage for backing up research. The answer was resoundingly BOTH! I bought an external hard drive that week. I leave it at home, but it is important to back up your work frequently. There are a number of cloud storage options—some free and some not free. Dropbox and Google Drive are popular free versions that can be upgraded if you need more space. I also hear good things about Carbonite. I am currently weighing my options.

Step Four: Organizing Your Research

Taking on a large research project requires excellent organization. You need to be able to find things quickly and more importantly know where they came from. My residency project forced me to clean up some of my organizational sloppiness. Now I create a system of files that echoes the repositories from which they originated. I will keep whole folders in one .pdf and put all the folders in the file according to the box they came from. For National Archives records, I have resorted to scanning the actual call slip and placing it in the folder. I used to try to do this with hand written notes, but that has not always proved reliable. There is nothing worse than not knowing the exact citation for a document, and I truly hate reading a document that has less than precise footnotes. Someone should be able to replicate your research based upon your citations.

Historian friends—feel free to chime in! What ticks and trips do you have? What tools do you prefer?

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