Prepping for the Archive

How do you prepare for independent research?

If you’re anything like me you dream all year long of the rare opportunities you can dive head-over-books into your research.  And if you’re anything like most graduate students, adjunct instructors, lecturers, and even some junior faculty, you spend a great deal of time researching and teaching works and genres that maybe don’t directly line up with your research interests.

So, when you have time–or the illusion of time, at least–to focus on yourself and your work, it’s easy to kick yourself for not protecting that sacred-seeming time through out the academic year. Sure, I maintain consistent writing hours and writing groups, but I just finished course work, co-teaching a course on seduction fiction of the C18 for the first time, and dealing with other external pressures, so my spring semester (like most spring semesters) was fairly rough.

But despite all of the stress of the regular semester, I crave the return of Fall semester, rigid schedules, and freshly sharpened pencils. I like to think I’m not the only one who misses the smell of new binders and lesson plans.

That being said, I’ve been using some time to prep for my year-long research fellowship in Ireland, Scotland, and England. The itinerary is already developed (if your campus has a Global Education Office then you should go give them hugs and become a friend) and reference numbers were pulled months ago, but there still remains the task of contacting librarians with information about my exact arrival dates, how long I will need materials, and how these materials will need to be handled (most archives have general guidelines, but some collections refuse any type of image scan, etc.).

Tips for the Archive

I’ve been fortunate enough to use a short term research grant to gather materials at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas, but I ask nearly everyone what advice they have for long-term archival work. Here are the tips I’ve gathered and used myself, if you think of anymore, please share! There are also great tips here.

  • Statement of research. Make sure you have a concise and clear statement of the work you plan to do in the archive; this is for your peace of mind and will help you quickly and clearly speak with librarians and curators about what materials you will need and why. Also, if you haven’t found funding yet this will be crucial to getting any financial aid.
  • Do your homework. Do as much work/reading/researching as possible BEFORE you arrive to the archive. You’ll feel much more confident entering the research center.
  • Take advantage of training or learning sessions. Nearly every research center has some version of training session to acquaint visitors with their resources. Sometimes these are online, in person, or both. Use these no matter how much you think you know what you’re doing. If you’re new to the institution, there’s likely to be something important there.
  • Create a time table. You will need to know your anticipated study dates when you contact archives, museums, libraries, etc. Again, this will help with writing proposals for grants or scholarships for funding your research.
  • Find funding! If you don’t already have financial funding for your research, try to find some through national scholarships, the particular library or archive you wish to visit, and most certainly though your academic institution.
  • Find reference numbers. Save these somewhere convenient, as research librarians will want to know both the titles and the reference number you’re looking for.
  • See if you need a Letter of Introduction; if so, talk to the research librarian or see the archive’s website on what they’re looking for.
  • Talk to research librarians! This is so important and the number one piece of advice I’ve received. Sure, depending on where you’re researching many librarians will be quite busy and may not be able to do more than find the materials that you’re looking for, but the research librarian is vital to getting the materials you need. Also, if any of the materials you’re looking for are circulating or on loan elsewhere, the librarian will need to know.
  • Review Archive Guidelines. When you get to the archive, you won’t be allowed to scan most (or any) documents or manuscripts. But many research centers do allow computers, phones, and tablets. One excellent app for phone or tablet is CamScanner —  which turns your phone or tablet into a portable scanner. CamScanner essentially converts non-flash photos (ideal for the archive) into a scan-like pdf.
  • Others? What methods do you employ while using archives?

These are a few tips I’ve gathered on hitting up archives and how I’m preparing for this over the summer–it may seem like a lot of groundwork, but the payoff (at least in my experience with short-term grants) is worth it. Feel free to chime in with your own experiences, advice, or tips. Anything different for those working with long-term fellowships?

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