Land of the Lost: Tips on Archives

As my research moved in a more historical direction over the past few years (beyond just trying to figure out what happens when you slam a blue and yellow crystal together), I've been learning about spending times in archives. Over the past year I've burrowed through an unmarked gay porn archive in West Hollywood and the Library of Congress, so I thought I'd jot down some tips on archival research while they're fresh in my mind:

- The basics. Archives are usually less accessible than regular libraries. You may need to write a query to them explaining what you're looking for or want access to, and what your research project is. (This is one reason why it's good to have a ready-to-go, one- or two-sentence, as noncontroversial as possible, description of your research already thought out.) Once there, you will have to sign in, and possibly register for an I.D. card or something similar. You usually can't just pull materials but will submit a call slip to librarians who will get materials for you. There will be a table or shelf usually marked for you to return materials when you're done. You generally can't check things out.

- Catalogs lie. When you find something you want online, call or email a reference librarian to make sure they actually have it. Especially before you travel to an out-of-town archive!

- There's no place like home. Remember Dorothy. Check any findings at faraway archives against local libraries, universities, etc. before you journey down that call-slip road.

- Save time with homework, pt. I. Go through any online catalogs at home before you go. Print out pages of everything you want. Don't just write down call numbers -- if there are any problems, reference librarians will want to see the exact and entire catalog entry -- and they may not be willing to look it up then and there for you.

- Save time with homework, pt. II. Also review the website for any and all FAQs, process documents, etc. You want to find out their procedures for requesting materials, what their hours are, what times you can request materials, how long it takes to get them back, how many requests you can put in at once, etc.

- Save time with homework, pt. III.If you're going multiple days, on the first day submit your call slips then grab a fistfull of blank call slips. That night, fill them out so they're ready to go when you get there tomorrow. At archives, time is precious, and between looking in catalogs, filling out call slips, and waiting for materials to be pulled, it's easy for one, two, or three hours to go by before you even get your hands on your first materials.

- Dollars aren't just for strippers. Bring extra singles for copy and printing machines. You also will probably have to buy a copy card you'll load up with money.

- Know the lay of the land. When you first get there, or when you're waiting for materials to arrive, scout out bathrooms, water fountains, cafeterias, printers, copiers, tunnels connecting buildings, building maps, etc. This will make your use of research time more efficient and, believe me, there will come a day when you're frantically racing against the clock trying to take notes on something before the archives close and will be wishing you'd hoarded your minutes better.

- Bring stuff. Pencils (many archives won't allow pens and the tiny stubby pencils they provide are terrible), scrap paper, laptop, laptop power cable and extension, extra batteries, digital camera (often better and cheaper than photocopies), etc.

- Bag it. You may not be allowed to bring your purse, bookbag or back pack inside. A sturdy plastic bag is a handy way to carry around the things you need that they will let you bring in (laptop, cables, pencils, reading glasses, etc.)

- Most important meal of the day.If you eat a big honkin' breakfast, you don't have to stop researching for lunch. (Typically no food or drink allowed inside.)

- Then again... This is probably one of the reasons historians aren't always the most stunning physical specimens. You need to take breaks to relieve your arms, wrists, back, neck, etc. anyway, so lunch could be one of those breaks. Just plan in advance what you want to do.

- Networking. Some aspects of the catalog may be different when you're searching at the archive versus at home. For example, the LoC's image catalog only shows thumbnails of some images when you're offsite. They're too small to really see, and you don't want to have to go through the hassle of requesting official copies. But when you're at the archives, on their computer network searching, they show you large digital versions of the images (which, ahem, can be right-clicked and emailed....).

- Who loves ya, baby? Librarians. Love them back. Not only do they hold the keys to your research kingdoms, they're generally really cool people who loooove helping. Treat them well.


  1. Karoliina8:00 PM

    I'm heading off to Wilberforce University's archive tomorrow, and someone sent me a link to this page. Thanks for writing down your words of wisdom!

  2. Thanks, hope they help. Good luck and remember to stretch!