Getting Ready for the Archives: 5 Essentials from a First-Timer

With just a few weeks until I head off to the archives in Paris, I wanted to share some of the preparation work I’ve been doing over the past several months. You can read about my PhD project here. I’m only in Paris for a few weeks, so I have to make the most of my time. I figured the more I can do in advance, the more efficient and fruitful would be my use of that time.
Added to this are two other challenges. First, it’s my first time doing archival research of this kind. Second, I discovered earlier this year that one of my archive sites is currently undergoing major renovations (until 2020!). This means materials might be inaccessible or relocated. I wanted to establish the state of play early on.
>Read my post on the Richelieu renovation project
I’ll be spending most of my time at two sites of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF; the National Library of France): the Richelieu site (where the manuscripts room is located, pictured below) and the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal.
In this post, I wanted to share some of the questions I asked myself and learnings I picked up along the way. Some of these might seem really obvious, so apologies in advance. But, it’s often the obvious things that are the easiest to miss.
Here are five are five areas I’ve been looking at in preparing for my archives visit. If you have any to of your own to pass on, add them as a comment to this post.

1. What am I going to do there? Setting my research goals

What am I actually going to do there? Will I be spending time with sources, translating/transcribing them? Sifting through lots of archival material? Or will I just be taking copies of material to bring back home?
These are questions I had to work out. For my project, I don’t have to do a huge amount of sifting. My sources are relatively obvious and easy to identify.
Over the past six months, I have been identifying documents and manuscripts I want to access using the BnF catalogue and their amazing digital platform, Gallica. I set them out in a spreadsheet, noting:

  • the key ‘metadata’ for each document (record number, document type title, publication year);
  • what I wanted to do with the document (inspect, copy, transcribe, etc);
  • comments or notes; and
  • a priority rating on a scale of one to four.

Prioritising what I want to see is important. If I run out of time, at least I’ve copied the most essential.
It might be a bit OCD, but I’ve even scheduled what documents I want to work on specific days. In all likelihood things won’t go to plan, but at least I’ll have a something to work with when I get there.

2. Research the archives

Of course, it’s important to do some preliminary research into the institution that you’ll visit. If they have restricted hours or requirements for access, you don’t want to discover that when you arrive on their doorstep. Here are some of the questions I investigated (and, again, forgive me if they are obvious).

  • What are their opening hours? Don’t assume that things are open every day 9am-5pm.
  • Are there any public holidays that might mean the archives are closed?
  • Are they undergoing renovations or any other work that might involve disruption to usual services? This is very applicable to me because the Richelieu site is undergoing renovations.
  • What documentation do they require for permission to access material? Photo ID is easy, but what if they require a reference from your supervisor? The BnF, for example, requires an ‘Attestation Form’ to be completed by the supervisor and stamped with the university’s stamp.
  • Is there an interview procedure beforehand?
  • Are there any applicable fees for accessing material? The BnF requires you to have a Reader’s Card, which attracts a fee (tiered depending on duration of access).
  • What procedures do they have for requesting material? How long do you have to wait from when you request something and when they deliver it? BnF has scheduled times for requesting material.
  • Are there rules or restrictions on what you can do in the research space, such as only being able to use pencils or restrictions on copying/photographing material? 


3. Equipment and storage

What equipment do I need to use at the archives beside a notepad and pen? I guess this really depends on what you intend to do at the archives.
Since most of my time will be spent inspecting and copying (that is, photographing) sources, I needed to think about a way of storing all this data securely so I could work on it when I return to Sydney. Storage is a really important issue and there are several solutions, whether a hard drive, USB, or cloud-based options (such as Dropbox).
The big two issues are volume (lots of photos) and security (Paris is a long way from Sydney, so I don’t want to have all this data lost or damaged). Is a USB really the best solution in terms of volume and security? If I put everything on a device such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, what happens if that is lost or damaged? Should I back up my work? Yes!
My supervisor, Nick Eckstein, recently returned from an archives visit in Italy and offered some useful advice on storing the thousands of images he had taken of manuscript folios from the 1600s. I ended up going with a combination of cloud-based and hard-drive.
Fisher Library has a Research Data Management team that can provide advice and invaluable information organised into modules on this page:
Also think about how you are going to organise your material so it all makes sense when you get back home. You don’t want to deal hundreds of random image files such as ‘IMG_089’.
Finally, don’t forget about things like power chargers etc.

4. Contact the archives

As I said, there are major renovations underway at the Richelieu BnF site. Another supervisor gave me the heads-up that this might affect access to material. I needed to establish whether anything I wanted to consult was affected, so I emailed the Department of Manuscripts at Richelieu specifying the manuscripts I most wanted to access. They responded, and we’ve been working through obtaining access approval for each source.
Contacting the archives before I arrive not only meant I could sort some of this stuff out before I arrived. It now means I have a few contacts within the BnF for when I am there. One of the archivists I’ve been exchanging emails with looks after the collection of Turkish manuscripts. This is a boon because the collection itself has its genesis in the very subject of my research. It is not only someone who can help me with locating material but who can relate the history of the collection itself.
So, I think it’s really useful to start building a relationship with archivists before you go, if possible. If the archives are in a non-Anglophone location, consider using the local language for communication (if you can) and observe professional communication practices.

5. Speak to other historians and postgrads (and follow them on Twitter)

I spoke to a few historians and fellow postgraduates in Sydney who had visited the archives I’ll be visiting, seeking their experiences and advice. This was incredibly helpful.
I also found some great advice on blogs run by institutions, historians, and postgraduates, including the following.

Then there’s Twitter. You’ll be surprised how useful it is as a budding historian to follow your peers and established historians on Twitter. For example, I follow Dr Sara Barker (@DrSKBarker), who works on the French Wars of Religion and print culture at the University of Leeds. Sara was tweeting during her archival research at the Bibliothèque d’Arsenal in Paris. It was such a wonderful and invaluable insight into archival work, both the trials and tribulations. I asked her a few questions about the archives and she responded with fantastic advice, including where to get the best coffee nearby (vital advice for a researcher!) and what the air temperature is like inside (you don’t want to be freezing or sweltering during your time in the archives).
Here are some sample tweets from Dr Barker.
Tweet from @DrSKBarker
Tweet from @DrSKBarker
As another example of historians talking archival research on Twitter, here’s a great thread from Professor Marie Hicks (historian of technology):
So, find the historians on Twitter who work in your field and follow them.
All of the above reflects some of the questions, thoughts, and practices that I considered in preparing for my archives visit in July. Let’s see what happens!
Meanwhile, if you have any tips or suggestions of your own, add them as a comment to this post.