Tips for Your First Visit to the Archives

I offered some unsolicited advice on Twitter (he says, as if there is any other kind of advice to be found there) about the first trip to the archives which was, for my not all that popular account, kind of a popular post. So, I’m going to expand on it here!

Believe it or don’t, this was the best piece of advice I got before my first trip to the archives.

A lot of the advice I got was practical: dress comfortably, make sure you read the rules and regulations of the archive before you get there (especially the documentation you need to gain access), check what you can actually bring in with you so that you don’t bring too much.

This was the one I heard and thought, Oh yeah, right.

It’s also the one that I remember the best now. Because it’s true. That first day never goes quite as expected. If you don’t believe me, take it from Randy:

You’ve compiled a massive list of documents you want to see, files you want to read — it never goes quite the way you expected.

Especially if you’re working with material that was generated in the pre-typewriter era.

Or it’s in a foreign language, and you discover that your ability to speak rapid, native sounding Spanish is not matched by your ability to skim Spanish.

Or you discover that your productivity is interrupted by mandatory tea time. Or that you have to leave the reading room for an hour.

Or maybe they will let you handle one document at a time.

Or, in my case, you weren’t thinking literally enough when you discovered a series of files called “Summary of Intelligence Reports Received,” and sat down, expecting to find a treasure trove and instead finding a ledger detailed how many intelligence reports were received every day.

Womp womp.

There’s always setbacks.

But somehow, the first day is always the worst. It’s the day your expectations and hopes collide head-on with reality. If you know that’s part of the process, and you’re prepared for it, it really makes a difference.

I thought about this a lot my first few days in the archive. It’s not a race. You’ll find what you need, and you’ll get there.

And if it doesn’t lead where you were hoping, you’ll adapt. Very, very few people actually come out of the archives with the same project they had when they went into the archives.

When I posted this, Melissa Johnson (@Lady_Historian) offered a tip in response:

Here’s some more that came up in response:

I would add to this, photocopy (or photograph) things you’re not sure you’ll want to use later. Your project will evolve over time, and you never know …

Definitely true. Especially if you’re far away from home, in a country where you’re working in a second language you’re almost-but-not-quite fluent in. The excitement wears off and suddenly you realize you don’t know anyone, and you’re going to be here for how long?

Check out Paula’s blog post for more advice!

And @pearcele is quite the optimist:

Keep them coming!

What are the tips for archival work you’d offer your past self? Let me know in the comments below!