archival

My childhood dream was to get a PhD in the UK, and when describing this dream to myself and others growing up I would say “I just want to be buried in the archives” (admittedly I’ve long had strange, some might say twisted, aspirations).

When the PhD dream became a reality, I realised I didn’t know the first thing about archives – what they were, what they looked like, and where one could find them.

I recently visited my third archive, each in a different city, and I can safely say that there is no one definition or image that can encase every archive.  Some are highly restrictive, requiring you to almost sign your soul away to gain access to materials (“In case you walk away with a piece of the Magna Carta”).  Some don’t even ask you to show ID, and you venture to guess you might be able to take a nap under your reader’s desk without them complaining about it.  Some are extremely organised, with every document having an ID number.  Others give you a box of materials they don’t have an inventory for, with perhaps hundreds of documents all falling under the label of “box 4 of 7”.  Some archives are in a room that smell as old as their centuries-old documents, while others are modern-minimalist chic, smelling of Model Home or New Car.  They are each a delight in their own way, full of the silent sounds of deep thoughts, and the cautious flipping of pages.

When I showed up to visit each, I mostly found myself thinking that I was being somehow deceptive.  After all, I’m not really a researcher, I am just pretending at this stage – learning on the fly, hardly know what I am doing.  I felt like I needed to confess that to the archivist, to make sure they knew I was still in need of my training wheels, before they gave me the keys to a car.  But, of course, this is all part of what being a PhD student is – learning on the fly – or, as I prefer to think of it, learning how to trek on a new kind of trail while hiking on it.  We’ll see what I make out of what I’ve found, but I think I’ve gotten the Archive Addiction – and I just can’t get enough.

To wrap up the post, I’m providing a few pieces of advice regarding “how to” (and “how not to”) engage with archives (in case you ever find yourself eager for a new addiction):

  • Check (and double check) the archive’s website for opening hours and holidays. Don’t assume the archive operates on typical business hours.  Many are closed on weekends, or closed on one at least one week day, and some have different hours of operation for various days of the week.
  • Check (and double check) the archive’s website for rules, regulations, and what you need to bring / do in order to access the archive. Pretty typically you will have to bring 1 (or 2) forms of ID and also proof of address.  Some require you to apply for access prior to visiting, with a signed letter from your supervisor indicating why you need to access their materials (and this application can take multiple weeks to process).
  • Email an archivist to inquire about the materials you seek. Sometimes the materials you want might be on loan, or have new restricted access you didn’t know about.  Sometimes they are stored off-site and you’ll need to give a few days notice before you can see them.  So, it is good to ask in advance so you make the most of your time when in the archive itself.
  • In this same email to the archivist ask if personal photography of the materials you seek is permitted. Whether or not photography is permitted will help you plan the amount of time you need with the materials accordingly (and help you adjust your expectations).  If you are allowed to take photos of the materials, you’ll be able to analyse them at home…but if you can’t, you’ll have to do all your reading and notetaking in the archive, and will need to plan to have more time there.
  • DO NOT bring a pen in with you. This is one of the seven deadly sins of archives.  You will be yelled at (thankfully this didn’t happen to me, but I witnessed it , I’m still chilled by the memory).
  • DO think about hat hair, and swallow your vanity. If you arrive out of a blustery Scottish day, which you had fended off with a hat, you might be asked to leave your hat in a locker along with your backpack, and coat.
  • DO breathe in deeply to savour the musty smell of aging paper.  One of the most delicious scents in the world (don’t argue).