Ten top tips for archive research

1. Wear old clothes

Lots of old things are written on vellum (calf membrane) and after you’ve touched about three hundred pieces of it, you’ll be covered in some kind of dripping and you have to wipe your hands somewhere.

2. Stash a hanky up your sleeve

After six years of searching, you will eventually find a document that will bring tears to your eyes. The archive staff will all look at you. This is not because they’re concerned for your well-being. Crying is not allowed in the archive in case it makes the ink run.

3. Wear a truss

First of all, this is not about BDSM (sorry, you lot). Second, if you don’t know what a truss is, then you may not need to wear one. Actually, scrap that, unless you are a professional lugger of heavy items, then you do need one. Some of the books need two people to lift them on and off the trolley and some are approximately the size of my chest freezer.

4. Take lots of pencils (but not too many)

Pens are not allowed in archives. This is because people accidentally write on things. (The British Library has a restraining order against me in respect of the Lindisfarne Gospels because my reputation precedes me.) If you rock up with a pen, you will look like a noob. But don’t take more than four pencils, or you’ll just look like you’re trying too hard. If you’re asking yourself whether you can take coloured pencils, it’s probably best for the future of the world’s heritage if you just stay at home.

5. Sharpen said pencils before leaving home

Each archive owns one pencil sharpener. Each one is exactly like the one on the teacher’s desk c.1972. It probably hasn’t been sharpened since 1972 and other researchers will kill you with invisible eyeball laserbeams while you grind your pencils very slowly into sawdust.

6. Take a pound coin

A bit like visiting a prison, all your belongings have to stay outside in a locker, which needs a pound coin to operate it. If you fail to provide your own pound coin, you’ll be issued with a trolley token. And eyes will be rolled behind your back. (NB, not sure prisons give out trolley tokens.)

7. Eat like a python and drink like a camel before you go

Most archives are open for relatively short periods of time (say, 10 till 4). If you need to look at lots of documents, you’re not going to want to waste any precious time leaving the room to eat or drink.

8. Avoid eating and drinking before you go

Most archives are open for relatively short periods of time (say, 10 till 4). If you need to look at lots of documents, you’re not going to want to waste any precious time leaving the room to answer calls of nature.

9. Take at least eight cameras

The night before you go, gather every photo-capable device owned by you, your family, your friends, your neighbours, and that weird bloke you sometimes nod to at the bus-stop. Then find the chargers. In fact, make this two nights before you go. Charge everything up and practise taking photos of hand-written pages from arm’s length. The archive staff get a bit cross if they catch you standing on their swivel chairs to get a better shot.

10. Don’t forget your notebook

Even though you’ve paid handsomely for your camera licence (usually £3 – 10 or so), you can’t take photos of everything. Some things belong to private collections, and while you can’t take photos, you can take notes. Be aware that the thing you most need will be in a private collection, and it will be 8,000 words long, so make sure you begin with that document and don’t look at it five minutes before the archive closes. People have homes to go to, you know!

11. Do your homework before you go

Okay, I lied. It’s eleven top tips, but this is probably the most useful. Many archives have online catalogues, so you can do a lot of the hard work from the comfort of your own home (which means you can eat, drink and visit the loo to your heart’s content). Write down or print off a list of the titles and the references you want to look at, and put them in order of priority to make sure you get to see the ‘must-see’ information before they ring for last orders (and they do). If you don’t know where to start with archive work, begin with the National Archives or check out local museums.

Despite what I’ve led you to believe here, archive staff are all extremely helpful and friendly, and if you’re new to research, they’ll be happy to advise you, whether you’re researching for a PhD, writing a book, digging up your family tree or finding out more about the old house you’ve just bought.

Happy researching, Helen

PS A magnifying glass never hurts (just don’t leave it in direct sunlight while you nip to the loo)…

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