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Pearls of Wisdom

Visiting Archives

Before You Go to the Archive

  • Prepare as thoroughly as possible, so you can absolutely maximize your time with the materials.
  • Find out as much as possible about the archive's collection IN ADVANCE. Check out the archive’s Website.
  • Study the archive's catalogue, but also study its RULES: when you can submit call slips, what you can bring in with you, etc. Archivists tend to be nice and helpful, but they understandably don't like having to explain the same rules over and over. The better you know the rules going in, the better use you'll make of your limited time.
  • Contact the archivists well in advance of your visit and explain your project. They can be very helpful in locating or suggesting material.
  • Know which days the archive is open and what the hours are. Some are open later on certain days, so if you are traveling it would be good to go then. Also, some have seasonal closings for holidays, inventory, etc. (You don’t want to make all of these plans only to arrive at the archive and find out that it is closed for the next two weeks.)
  • As soon as possible, make an appointment to visit the archive. Space is limited, especially if your visit will require the use of technology (DVD players, audio players, film projectors, computers, etc.)
  • Know exactly what you want to look at before you arrive. If the archive doesn’t have a complete online catalogue, see if the staff will mail you a hard copy. Or else, just call the archivist and ask him/her what the archive has that is related to your topic. You'd be surprised, but archivists actually want to talk to you! 
  • Gather together call numbers and titles of everything you want to look at in advance, and even have secondary tasks in mind. Sometimes material is not what you hoped it would be, so think ambitiously. At some archives, you can request materials ahead of time via the Internet, so they are waiting for you when you arrive. Also, some items are kept off site, so the archive may need time (days or weeks) to locate them.
  • Learn the archive’s policy on photocopying or research fees. (Make sure to budget for this.) Some archives even require a letter of introduction for examining material. Some archives severely restrict photocopying, but more are allowing unlimited digital photography. So buy yourself a good digital camera, if you don't have one already. Bring small bills and pocket change for whatever photocopying is allowed. Prepare for all of this in advance so you’ll have a sense of how much note- taking you'll need to do on site, as opposed to working at home from copies.
  • See if you need to get a special ID before using the archives (e.g. the New York Public Library system or Library of Congress.)
  • When working on papers for classes or conferences, list those archives, libraries, or research centers that have material pertinent to your subject.
  • Be on the lookout for research grants that would allow you to travel and analyze documents or other material. (There are several here at the GC, and many others outside the CUNY system.) Some archives even have research grants to bring you to their institutions.
  • Research options for eating at or near the archive. You don’t want to arrive without knowing how and where you will be able to find food. You don’t want to waste time looking for a restaurant or market in the neighborhood.
  • Make sure you have clear directions to the archive and various ways that you can get there. (If one form of public transportation breaks down, is there an alternative?)

During Your Visit to the Archive

  • Bring valid identification.
  • Wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
  • Bring a sweater or sweatshirt. (These places can get very cold.)
  • Bring pads of paper.
  • Bring mechanical pencils. You will not be able to bring in ink pens.
  • Bring handfuls of small bills and change.
  • Bring your medicine: eye drops, lip balm, pain killers, etc.
  • Bring a granola bar or something like that for a quick snack.
  • Bring a watch.
  • Bring lunch, if you can.
  • If you have them, bring pre-printed return-address labels, because some archives require that you write out your name and address on EVERY call slip. This can save you time.
  • Bring your existing research (other photocopies, notes, or papers you’ve written).
  • Bring your laptop! Most archives let you bring them. And if you are outside the United States, you may need to bring an adaptor plug. (FYI: Some archives won’t let you bring in your own notebooks.)
  • Bring a digital camera. This can be very helpful in several ways. Some archives are more lenient about photographing material rather than photocopying it. (This can also be much less expensive if you are working on long documents.) Also, it can save you hours or even days if writing or typing. Instead of transcribing material on the spot, photograph it and transcribe it later.
  • Chat up the archivists. If you build a friendly relationship with the staff and they realize that you are truly invested in your project, they sometimes offer advice or suggest other materials (or even archives) that you can look at.
  • Be patient. Things take time, and sometimes material is unavailable or missing.
  • BE NICE. You want to build a relationship with your archivists, especially if you're there for more than one day. Learn their names, greet them cheerfully, and always ask for what you need politely. DON'T be a diva, no matter how important you believe you and your scholarship are to civilization. Remember…in that environment, the archivists hold the documents and, thus, they hold the power.

After You Visit the Archive

  • Consider sending a nice thank-you note to the archivists. You may want to go back, and it never hurts to show your appreciation.