We Don’t Want No Problems: Tips for the Archives


Schomburg Center, summer 2017 (I am excited to visit the newly remodeled Schomburg Center next month)

For those who are new to my blog, I am working toward my PhD in History with a focus on African American history. The department requires each of us to submit a first year paper, or our “rite of passage” into the department. As I begin to outline and sketch out this paper, I plan to make a trip to the Schomburg Center (Harlem) and the Mississippi State Department of Archives and History (Jackson, MS). I journeyed to many archives over the years and I learned an important lesson–no two archives are the same, meaning they each have different rules. Some allow cameras, some do not. Some allow you to bring your own paper, some do not. Some even allow you to bring your own pencil and personal (portable) scanner, and some do not. The archives were a new environment for me back in 2012. I entered my first research center with little knowledge of how these places work. How should I organize my finding? If I cannot take photos, what is the best way to document my research? Did I check the photos division? To help some new scholars, this post will provide you with tips on navigating these storehouses of history.

Plan ahead, plan way ahead. 

Do you have a place to stay? What’s the duration of your research trip? How are you travelling around the city? Is it cheaper to go during this ______ time of the year? Does the archive have research grants or fellowships? What times are they opened? Are they closed on certain dates/days of the week? How much does it cost to print? Also did the information you need magically became digitized? It is important to answer these questions because research trips are pricey. You also want to be prepare for the trip. If you planned a two day trip and realized you have 15 boxes of material to go through, you will run into some problems.

Make sure your material is on-site. If the archival collection is off-site, you will have to contact the archivist (or use an online form) in advance to have the material retrieved for the week of your visit. At most archives, this can take one or two days up to a few weeks. You have no time to waste on research trips.

Study the collection’s description before arriving! 


I cannot stress this enough. If possible, gather a sense of what is in the collection before going. A detailed collection description should accompanied the collection within the catalog (if  processed). This will enable you to prioritize boxes and maximize your research trip.

Learn the rules. 

Paper. No. Laptops. Yes. Pens. No. Portable scanner. Depends.

Most archives (besides smaller historical societies) will not allow you to bring bags, laptop cases, notebooks, or even other books. Know the rules of the archive you are going to. Some rules are universal, but other are location specific such as cameras, scanners, and paper.

Stay organize.

Written notes– Simple. Head each paper with the box #, folder #, and document title before proceeding to write. Later, type up all of your notes and save them on your computer, CLOUD, and flash drive (no flash drive, simply e-mail the documents to yourself).

Electronic notes– (BEFORE YOUR TRIP) Utilize the collection description to create folders based on box # and within each box’s folder, a folder corresponding to each archival folder. This way you can enter your notes into each respective document. NOTE: You can wait to move the notes post-trip. Also this helps as you take photos of each item you need. Before photographing documents, first take a picture of the box # and folder title. This will keep your photos organize when you import them to your computer. When you move on to the next folder/box, just take another picture as you create visual reminders of which photos goes to which box. Once the images are imported to your computer, rename each picture using this format, Box_Folder_Title. Save on computer, cloud, and flash drive.

Reminder about photographs. Some archives remove photographs from collections and place them in a separate division. Check both the archival reading room and the institution’s photography division as well.

Last, contact the archivist. 

Share your research, ask questions, and tell the archivist when you are coming. Archivists are your friends and you want to remain on their good side. An archivist in Mississippi was an additional help when it came to lodging information, car rentals, and even good food in the area.

Additional notes. 

Bring snacks. Explore the area. Take breaks. And most importantly bring a nice sweater.

Best of luck on your research journeys!


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