Advice for Graduate Students Embarking on Archival Research

Note: Some of the tips regarding technology in this post are, of course, already outdated. Instead of rewriting it, I'll leave it as is. Consider it an archival document itself. (9/2015)

After visits to over a dozen archives in pre-dissertation and actual dissertation research, I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences and render some practical how-to advice.* All of what I say is inherently provisional, as I have yet to produce the end product (the dissertation) that would prove my advice sound. And all of what I say relates to my own experience and is not necessarily transferable to other people or places. In particular, a few idiosyncrasies: 1) I drink coffee in the morning and I am vegetarian; 2) my research has been at archives in the United States, mostly in suburbs or college towns; 3) my project is not based on a single archive but rather requires the construction of an archive of sorts. Let me explain further why these points matter.

Your Basic Needs

Archival research is exhausting. Even if one doesn’t have to lift heavy boxes of papers (and one often does), looking through old papers is remarkably tiring physically, mentally, and emotionally. I will return to the affective experience of the archive below, but I want to warn prospective historians that no matter how rested, well-fed, in-shape, and otherwise prepared for the task you think you are, you will come away from the archive drained. Coffee can help, as can any other number of stimulants. But this leads to the initial problem: archives are not always in the most user-friendly (or, more importantly, vegetarian-friendly) locales, even if they seem like they might be. Don’t assume you will be able to find coffee on the way or a salad at lunch, even in college towns.

If you have the time and wherewithal, do a dry-run the night before you go to the archive to see how long it will take to get there and where you can find coffee on the way, lunch in the afternoon, and so on. The reason for such preparation is that if you find yourself spending time trying to sate your basic alimentary needs, you’ll feel like you’re wasting that time which should be spent neck-deep in dusty papers. And you’ll end up annoyed and cranky, especially if you haven’t had enough coffee. It’s also worth figuring out the parking situation before you arrive in the morning, just to save that time/the money of the parking ticket you may get (has anyone ever written into a proposed research budget potential parking tickets?). And if you’re using mass transit, a dry-run may be impossible but it’s worth the due diligence to figure out how it will work. Luckily, in the present era of online maps, this task is easier than it used to be. 


Beyond the planning ahead for your physical arrival at the archive, the most important way to ensure you have a fruitful visit is to come armed with as much information as possible. Most archives have copious amounts of information online, which you should examine in detail. Some archives have better websites and finding aids than others, obviously. Don’t assume that bigger/fancier institutions are more user-friendly, nor that a great website means an easy archive experience. In addition to looking at archives’ websites, look at the notes sections of the books you skimmed ( for your comp exams or dissertation proposal. If your research is in dialogue with other scholars’, what papers did they look at? Recently published dissertations on your topic (but hopefully not exactly on your topic) will be of great use in this regard. Also, if anyone you know has previously visited the archive you plan to visit, ask questions about it.

You should also contact an archivist before you go. This is really important. You don’t want to arrive all ready to go at 9am only to find out that the collection you want to view is held off-site and cannot be delivered any sooner than two days after your scheduled departure. Most of the time, archivists will pull what you want before you arrive if you know what exactly you want. If you don’t know, they will be able to tell you where to start. Hopefully you have some idea or else you wouldn’t even be visiting a particular archive. All of this may not apply if you’re visiting NARA II in College Park, where no amount of prep is enough because what you see online on their site is not necessarily useful for actual requests of boxes. I’ll save my NARA II advice for another day, but suffice it to say that you should plan to waste a fair amount of time on your first day there if you go to the mother of all archives, owing to sheer befuddlement. 

Even if you do find a bunch of good leads online, you might want to ask an archivist if there is anything else that may be of interest for your topic. Although you’ve heard of J. Edgar Hoover and you found the archive that holds his papers, you may not know that his brother’s papers are also held at the same archive, and they’re even more interesting. (Uh, j/k: Hoover’s papers went up in flames upon his death. And I’m not even going to bother googling to see whether he had a brother.)

Some archives will give you an extensive orientation upon arrival, and others have a laissez-faire attitude. Take advantage of the orientation by establishing a rapport with the archivist, even if some of the info you receive is not particularly useful or is very basic. Do take note of policy differences among archives, as what flies in one joint won't always fly in another.

If your topic is innovative, and it better freaking be, prepare yourself for the archivist to tell you that what you are looking for does not exist. Be persistent and don’t take no for an answer. For an example of why not, read Saltwater Slavery by Stephanie Smallwood or Laboring Women by Jennifer Morgan. In my case, the structuring principles of state archives work against my research questions: civilian-military and domestic-foreign are the divisions into which the historical record must be placed, but my research concerns interactions, transactions, translations, and transmissions across these divisions—their blurriness. Moreover, my research is on the production and circulation of knowledge, which means that I am paying attention to connections that archives document unintentionally. Document A produced by Official X ends up on the desk of Official R, whose papers I’m viewing. Why? How? What does this pathway suggest about the flow of ideas? I now need to look at the papers of Official X, which are housed across the country in another institution. As I look at multiple institutional collections to trace these circulations, I am constructing my own archive of a multilayered process and a set of relationships that do not exist as such out there in the world of institutionally situated dusty old papers. Instead, it is the interstitial glue of professional and informal relationships that holds these collections together, in a sense, that is an object of my research.

If you do spend some time online before you go, you may be able to find what you do not want to (or need to) consult in person because it’s already online, published in a book, or even on microfilm—and thus available from the comfort of your home, at your home institution, or via ILL. Note, bizarrely, not all microfilm held by the Presidential Libraries is held in duplicate by NARA II, nor are original papers that were microfilmed always extant. Whoops.

Finally, if you're headed to a big archive like NARA II that is useful to many different projects, you might try to go with a friend or two. I did that last time around and it made it much more pleasant. Nothing satisfies like a post-archive report-back beer among colleagues. 


Everyone will develop his or her own technology preferences. And experienced historians will tell you that technological innovations do not mean better histories. Some will say that you should not take digital pictures at all; notes alone will suffice. After all, it is true that the greats didn’t take pictures. But, then again, the greats also lived in cheaper times and were not expected to finish their degrees as quickly as we are today. Apparently some archives still do not allow digital photos, but I have yet to visit one. 

Most archives have free wi-fi access, which actually is greatly useful. (If there is no wi-fi or you have to pay for access, a smartphone can be an alternative.) Being able to look up a name, a date, or a document (or where to find vegetarian food) comes in handy. Also, honestly, sometimes taking a break to look at Twitter or whatever is nice, but mostly you'll find yourself "in the zone" and not craving distraction. Sometimes—and I think I developed an intuition for this as I spent more time in archives—documents you’re looking at seem like things that might be online already. Rather than taking photos of them now, you may want to look at them later. So you can either save the link or save a PDF. And this gets me to the notes question.

You can never take enough notes. 

Record notes of absolutely everything that you do while you do it and in the evening afterwards. I say this because I didn’t always adhere to it, and I regret it now. If you skip over a folder in a box, take a note. If you see something that makes you think of something you’ve read elsewhere, take a note. Take notes on every aspect of the files you pulled that you may need in order to cite them, including what made you pull them in the first place. (“The Archivist recommended I pull Box 1, and the Finding Aid said ‘puppies’ so I pulled Box 2.”) And, most importantly, take notes on all the ideas you will inevitably have while in the archive. Part of what makes the archive exhausting but also exhilarating is that you will have a million light bulbs going off in your head while you look at the papers. It’s an incredible feeling. Write these ideas down, as they will become the basis for many of the things you write in your project later. Some say their best ideas come to them in the archive. 

On the technology side of things, I recommend that you use Evernote or a similar cloud-based note-taking program that will allow you to access your notes anywhere at any time. Because digital notes are text-searchable, they’re more useful, in my opinion, than the trusty little notebooks nerdy graduate students tend to pull out of their pockets at the oddest times. Because Evernote syncs across devices, if you have multiple devices, it’s really useful. Going to a Red Sox night game after a day at Harvard's archives? Guess where you'll have a flash of insight you want to write down! And you don’t have to worry about losing your notebook—or your iPhone—and losing data with it.

I have tried the method of going through an entire box of papers and taking notes on what looked worthwhile before photographing, and I don’t think it’s any more useful than taking notes and photos folder by folder. There must be all sorts of ways to do it. Some archives require a per diem fee for taking pictures. In that case, it's probably best to look at papers first and note what you want to photograph on a subsequent day. (I did this at the Bancroft Library at Cal.) Because I am always on the hunt for a connection I didn’t previously know about, and hence a new archive to visit or a new name to look up, I take a lot of notes and do a lot of googling while viewing papers. My pathological collecting of obscure old records (vinyl, that is) has actually been good training for this type of thing. (Apparently, I’m not alone.)

I tend to take more photos than I need. In fact, I noticed that I had a funny tendency of taking more time looking at the stuff I didn’t photograph because if something looked useful, I would immediately photograph it and then move on. The less-interesting stuff got a longer read and then I would flip past—but it would have a way of sticking in my head because I’d read it, causing me to wish I’d photographed it. Now I have tried not to do this and give equal consideration to everything. 

For photographs, I use my iPad 3. I really like the ability to see the photo in full size on the tablet screen, and the iPad 3 has a very good camera. I had the previous iPad and took thousands of photos with it. But they are noticeably inferior. Small text reproduces poorly in digital photos in general, so watch out for that. Also, be aware of lighting in your photos no matter what you use to take them. Shadows can be really annoying, and some archives just have crappy lighting. Flashes are never allowed.

Each day after I take photos, I download them to my computer and upload them to the cloud. For a while I kept them on my iPad because the great thing about it is that you can look directly at the photos you took on the device. But then I filled up the damn thing! Either way, download everything and back it up immediately. I use Dropbox (I pay for a large account), but any cloud-based storage is a good idea. The worst possible thing that can happen is for you to spend days taking photos and then lose them. The cloud prevents this catastrophe from happening. And for cloud naysayers, I say if the cloud goes down forever, I’ll have bigger worries than my dissertation research. Anyway, my vision of Communism includes the cloud. It’ll be free and unlimited for all.

In your photos, you should be sure to record as much citation information as possible. I photograph box labels and folder title tabs. Some archives require you to put citation info in each photo on a streamer or card. Even if not, it’s a good idea to do that anyway. You’ll never cease to surprise yourself at how much you’ll forget if you don’t write it down or photograph it. (And you will be surprised going back and looking at your photos at what you didn't remember having looked at/photographed.) If possible, get photocopies of your pull slips at the end of your visit. They can be useful for refreshing your memory of what you looked at, when, and in what order. I find it annoying that a lot of archives require photos to include a copyright indemnity card, but that’s another thing that’ll be fixed with Communism.

So: take with you your camera. You can get away with just it and loose notepaper that archives provide. But if you have a laptop, it’ll probably be useful because you’ll be able to type notes quickly. Also, an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard is a good substitute for a laptop, particularly if you’re not going to be doing anything beyond taking notes.

There are some other apps on the iPad that may be of use. For example, Officedrop is a cloud-based storage and scanning app. You can compile photos into PDFs directly on your iPad with it, and then upload them to remote storage, which you can then access from your computer. It’s pretty cool (and has labeling capabilities that come in handy), but the images get downsampled, so the resolution of the PDFs you make with it are less good than ones you’d make with Acrobat. I have found this app useful when taking photos of a multipage document I knew I would want to read in full. But it’s not necessary. One more thing about the iPad, and maybe this is my own incompetence at work: photos inexplicably don’t always end up oriented correctly (ie, 8.5"x11" pages sometimes are displayed the short way on the screen). It will save you a lot of time if you fix the page orientation on your photos in Image Capture before downloading them. I did not always do this, and it’s much slower to do it once they’re on your hard drive. There are automated ways to do this, as well as to rename photos. Check the footnote below. A drawback with the iPad as compared to a digital SLR camera is that the former produces less meta-data with each photo, which may make your life more difficult if you are the kind to rely on meta-data. 

Did I mention that you should take a lot of notes? It might be useful to take notes on paper and then type them up later. But I find that I use shorthand on paper and then later on I have trouble figuring out what I meant. I type really fast, so I am likelier to jot the full thought down while typing. I write down photo numbers for quotations or other important info so that I can easily find them later. If you're the type to make spreadsheets, this is your time to shine. I also use a silly system of asterisks and dollar signs in my notes, which is supposed to indicate what type of thought I am having. I don’t always adhere to it, but you might want to distinguish between notes that are ideas of things to look up later, brilliant insights, and background info/citations. Looking back over my notes from early archive visits in my pre-dissertation stage (aided by the SSRC DPDF; thanks!), I am struck by how much more I know now (hopefully this happens to every researcher) but also by how path-dependent (in a good way) my project has been. The germs of thoughts that continue to develop as I proceed came into existence while looking at archival documents very early on.


Many scholars have put a lot of work into theorizing archives, including the affect that goes along with them. It is impossible to separate the experience of archives, and of writing history based on them, from the politics of their construction and maintenance. Equally, it would be a mistake to ignore the affect of archival experience. It may be surprising how affecting archives can be, but if history and the materialities of it are not compelling then you are probably in the wrong business. Anyway, even with the politics in the background, the mundane experience itself can be a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from joy and exultation to sadness, feelings of inadequacy, boredom, frustration, and exhaustion. And that can all happen within a single morning of looking at papers! Expect to find a lot that is useless. Low expectations can make it more rewarding when you do find something useful. Either way, you will be frustrated by the amount of useless stuff you have to look at. If your research is about difficult subjects, expect to be (almost) overcome with emotion. For me, I was surprised at how depressing it can be to look through the endless evidence of state repression and white supremacy, even though that’s what I have signed up for. There is also something compelling about actually touching the very papers once touched by historical figures. For some it’s papers held by powerful politicians. For others it’s papers held by nearly forgotten revolutionaries. Don’t, however, mistake that feeling for analytic import.

One more thing: you will be tempted to write on Facebook or Twitter about your experience in the archive, and you might want to share photos that you take of really cool or funny documents. Watch out for the policies of archives on this stuff. It’s probably not allowed. In a jam, deny everything.


The process of collecting archival material for an historical dissertation is, of course, crucial. A lot of time and effort is expended applying for funding to take these research trips. The trips are often fabulous, but they are not easy. Hopefully some of this advice can make them easier for others. The funny thing, though, is that once you've looked at old papers, the hard part comes next. What the hell do they mean? What evidence have you collected of what historical events, processes, and relationships? You should have an idea of what you're looking for on your way in, but you will be surprised by the unexpected turns you take. That is OK. Indulge them, but don't take your eye off the ball. Next is the process of processing these photos you've collected and beginning to write, which is the stage at which I am now (though a few more archive visits are on the horizon still). I think it is going well. At the very least, I'm enjoying reading the documents I photographed all over the United States in the past couple years. I sure have a lot of them!


* There must be hundreds of blog posts by scholars on these subjects. Many are more detailed than this one. A few useful posts I found are by Claire Potter (dig the heavy hitters in the comments section!), Miriam Posner (here and here), and Chad Black.



Submitted by David K. Cohrs on Mon, 05/27/2013 - 01:15

Preparation is really one of the key aspect of writing a dissertation or thesis. Sometimes, people do get overwhelm with all the workload and didn’t expect all of it. In the end, they find it hard to finish their papers on time. So, I think being prepared with knowledge and expertise would greatly help you ease the process of embarking on research

Submitted by Andrew Rudalevige on Fri, 06/07/2013 - 14:07

This is very thoughtful - thanks! I've spent a lot of time in the archives (esp NARA II and the presidential library system) and your comments are right on the mark.


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