Tips on Using Archives for Research

Archival research makes up a huge part of the PhD for some. In this post, Andrea Hajek shares useful tips on how to get the most out of visiting archives, both locally and internationally. Whether you are new to the game, or an old boy at this mode of research, you would find this a good read

Preparing for the visit

Archives are not libraries, and most of the time you cannot just show up and expect to see the material you require. Here’s a few tips on how to approach archives:

  • Always contact the archive (or check their website) to find out if they have the material you want.
  • Arrange to have your material prepared in advance – different archives have different procedures.
  • Confirm their opening times!
  • Schedule plenty of time for your visit: you may always come across material you didn’t expect to find, and which you need to explore.

Most archives will ask for a university badge and an ID-card, but you may also have to provide a recommendation letter from your supervisor. You can write this yourself and have your supervisor sign and print it on letterhead paper. Make sure you mention:

  • your name
  • course or funding body
  • project title and brief description
  • the reason you need to use the archive

Rules and regulations

Archives can have a lot of (annoying) rules, and at times you really need to be patient. Again, check the archive’s website or enquire in advance about what you’re allowed to do and to take inside the archive.

  • You might have to leave your coat and bag in a locker, so bring some change.
  • If it’s a small archive and you have to leave your belongings in someone’s hands, remember to carry an additional ID.
  • Most archives won’t allow pens or markers, so bring a pencil and pencil-sharpener, and – of course – paper.
  • It may also be difficult to bring in books of your own, so it’s better to bring photocopies if you can.
  • Archives will not let you carry in food or beverages, and not all of them are equipped with a canteen or food/drink distributor. Bring bottled water, especially if you’re planning a long day.
  • If you’re bringing a laptop, don’t forget your battery!
  • Mobile phones stay in the locker or should be put in silent mode.

Being organised

Keep a record of the material you gather, and be legible! You don’t want to have to double-check facts because you can’t read your own writing.

Always write down dates and page numbers, not just for your own references but in case you need to check up on information at a later stage

Don’t leave everything to the photocopier!

Always enquire beforehand about copying policies and costs. Remember:

  • Some material can’t be photocopied because it’s old and fragile.
  • Other sources are confidential and can only be copied by hand.
  • Not all archives have a photocopier. If they do, it might be broken, or being used by other people. Schedule for the unexpected!
  • Photocopying can be expensive, so find out if your department can refund these costs, and if so, make sure you get a receipt.

One way of avoiding expensive photocopies is by taking photographs of the material. Some archives allow this for fragile documents, but you will have to ask permission and probably fill in a form.

Using archives abroad

If you’re visiting archives in other countries, you need to enhance your level of preparation. You will have a lot less time at your disposal, and will be under more pressure. Here are a few tips on how to prepare for this challenge:

  • Get acquainted with foreign terminology and culture.
  • Select and contact archives a long time in advance. Replies can take a long time, or the archive may be closed for a specific reason, so don’t leave it to the last minute.
  • Collect your recommendation letters in advance.

Schedule several days (if not longer) for a single visit!

Photo Credit: StuartMiles/

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