Getting Started With Archival Research
Archives are strange things. Each one is different, with different histories and different strengths. This page, Archival Research Introduction, will give a broad overview of what archival research means and how to get started with it. Since this introduction is part of a guide to the resources at the Center for Southwest Research, the procedures described here will reflect those used at the CSWR. Users will find working with other archival collections broadly similar, but things like rules of access, hours, security, and how collections are organized and identified may differ from one repository to another.
This part of the guide assumes little to no experience working with archival materials. For more information about some of the terms used in this guide, have a look at the CSWR Collection Identifiers tab.
For more experienced researchers, take a look at the CSWR Resources In Depth. These pages go into detail about using the different resources within the CSWR to find materials. For more detailed information about conducting research at the CSWR specifically, including explanations of the collection organization, examples of how to request materials, and other nuts-and-bolts information, check out the CSWR Examples and Tips page.
Question: What exactly do you find in an archives?
The short answer:
All kinds of things! Books, old newspapers and magazines, videos, paintings, sculptures. You name it, there's an archive for that kind of thing somewhere. Generally, archives collect, house, and make available unpublished materials produced through the regular operation of an organization, institution, individual or family. In the case of an organization's archive, the materials will consist of non-current documents. For example, tax documents from a decade ago may no longer have a day-to-day use, but could be preserved in an archive both for future researchers, as well as for their potential evidentiary use by the organization in case of a tax audit. In the case of an individual, an archives might house things like journals, correspondence, drafts, and other materials produced by the individual during their career.
The longer answer:
Since archives are specialized, different repositories house different kinds of materials. For example, the CSWR houses a variety of objects related to the American Southwest, including the papers and architectural drawings of John Gaw Meem, a famous New Mexico architect. The Center also houses a variety of collections that include photographic material, audiovisual material, papers, and other physical objects.
An important thing to remember about archival collections is that they are themselves historical. That is, the objects and collections gathered together in a repository will reflect which donors wanted to leave their materials to the archives, whether those materials were in good enough shape to preserve, decisions on the part of archivists about the historical value of these materials, considerations of space, and so on. This means that even making an exhaustive search in the finding aid is no substitute for actually going through the materials themselves, whether in person or digitally if the collection has been made available that way. It also means that certain collections might skew in a particular direction or bear disproportionate percentages of a certain kind of material. For example, a collection that specializes in American folk art might have a greater percentage of handmade quilts in its collection than, say, a regional archive housing collections from Appalachia, even if the latter collection does have some quilts as well.
The historicity of archival collections also means that, in some cases, objects and collections use language that would today be considered inappropriate or worse. Social, political, and economic changes over the decades mean that researchers will, almost certainly, eventually run into inappropriate, offensive, or otherwise harmful material. Different archives have different ways of dealing with these kinds of issues, and attention to rectifying past injustices and ensuring inclusivity in archives is a growing concern in the field. That said, researchers should bear in mind the possibility of encountering harmful material.
Here it might be worth taking a look at how archives are described. After gaining ownership of a collection and determining whether the materials are in stable enough condition to be made available to researchers, archivists (or graduate fellows!) undertake the task of going through the materials in the collection to organize and describe them. If you look at a random collection in the New Mexico Archives Online (NMAO) - say, the Day Science Fiction Collection (MSS-318-BC) - you will see that the collection is described down to the item level. That is, you can search for a particular magazine title from a particular year and find which box that title and issue is housed in. However, the stories and articles contained within that issue of that title are not listed. So, if you're looking for stories by L. Sprague DeCamp, for example, you'll need to look elsewhere than the collection finding guide to determine where to look.
While it may seem like an inconvenient oversight not to list story and article titles in the collection finding aid, given the Day collection's size, this would have delayed making the collection available to researchers. This is another important point to mention: describing, managing, and maintaining archival collections takes time, work, money, and space. And, of course, there is never enough of all these things at once. Archival collections often consist of dozens or even hundreds of boxes of materials, meaning that painstakingly describing each and every item might take a very long time. While a detailed and itemized finding guide might be helpful for future researchers, the time it would take to produce such a guide would keep the collection from being useful to researchers now.
[A note for grammar sticklers: "archives" can correctly be used as both a singular and plural noun! I know, I know. I taught high school English for years and it drives me crazy, too!]
An archival packing list
Patrons and researchers will typically not go into the spaces where archival materials are stored. Rather, the parts of the archive that users see are the "front end" of the repository: check in, lockers for personal belongings, and reading room spaces.
Different repositories have different rules regarding the things patrons may bring into the reading room with them. At the most basic, patrons will typically not be allowed to bring food or drink, pens (because ink is indelible), or bags with them into the reading room for reasons of security and conservation. Archivists take seriously the need to preserve materials for as long as possible, and may require patrons to handle items carefully or wear gloves in some cases. There may also be stricter rules that apply to more fragile objects. Repositories will normally provide secure places for patrons to store their things while consulting materials in the reading room, but it's always best to call ahead and check (this goes double for parking!)
Most repositories also have some form of security check. Patrons will typically need to present an ID - sometimes a government ID, but student/university IDs are often ok as well. Some repositories, especially collections that are very old, valuable, or politically or socially contentious, might require further security measures, such as emptying one's pockets and walking through a metal detector, or the repository reserving the right to inspect patrons' bags. Reading rooms will often have camera systems to supervise researchers while they are in the room. These measures might seem invasive to some, but patrons should remember the archives' goal of preserving materials for as long as possible, for as many researchers to use as possible. Since many archival materials are unique and irreplaceable, archival staff take pains to keep these materials safe and in good shape.
At the CSWR, patrons will be asked to show their ID (government or university) to check out a locker for their belongings. Patrons will also be asked to surrender their ID when they request materials in the reading room. (Don't worry, we'll give it back when you've finished!) The Anderson Reading Room does not allow food or drink, bags, or pens, but phones (silenced), computers, notebooks, and pencils are all just fine.
|Things to bring to the reading room
|Things to leave out of the reading room
|Pencils and notebooks
|Pens of any kind (even the supposedly "erasable" ones!)
|(silenced) phones, laptop computers
|Food or drink
An ID - bring a government ID like a driver's license and a student/university ID, just to be safe
|Bags, including purses. The CSWR has lockers for patrons to store their personal effects.
|A list of collections to consult, or a question to start working on
|If you are working with materials from outside of the reading room, make sure to let the archivist know when you arrive so there is no confusion about which materials go where!
Some Dos and Donts in the Archives
Archival research often takes a long time and involves false starts, dead ends, even sometimes realizing that a project simply isn't going to work. On the other hand, the excitement of discovering the last piece of the puzzle in the last document in a box ten minutes before the reading room closes on a Friday afternoon can feel incredible. Because reading rooms are usually shared spaces, patrons should think of them as similar to the quiet sections of a library.
Some general things to remember:
Some Tips and Tricks
Working with archives can present challenges because each one is different. While archives have moved toward a set of standards in recent decades, each repository is nonetheless unique and will take some getting used to. It's a bit like getting the hang of a new car, or a new pair of glasses. Despite each repository's uniqueness, however, some general tips and tricks apply to using archival sources.