Four things I wish I’d known before I started archival research

Leeds Trinity’s Ruth Clemens, who is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature, shares her tips and tricks here for making the most out of time in the archives.


In the second year of my PhD, I visited London and Cambridge to consult archival material relating to the poet T.S. Eliot. Here are four tips I wish I’d known before I started archival research.

  1. Research your archive properly

Check the location and opening times of the archive. These might not be what you expect – one of my archives closed for lunch, which I needed to plan ahead for.

Research local amenities – some archives are miles away from anywhere, so bring food and a thermos if you need a caffeine fix.

Get in touch with the relevant archivist or librarian beforehand, and make sure you know exactly how the archive operates. Some archives require you to reserve materials, or boxes of materials, ahead of the visit. Others, such as the British Library, allow you to order materials to different sites or request copies of certain items which could potentially save you time and money.

Lastly, find out what you’re allowed to bring in to the archive – if you are allowed to bring a smartphone and take photos then it will broaden the amount of material you’ll be able to consult in a day. Which reminds me…


2.  Bring the right equipment 

Most archives won’t allow pens, so be prepared and bring a pencil. Bring two spares, and – I cannot stress this one enough – bring a pencil sharpener. A properly sharpened pencil can help to make the difference between legible and illegible handwriting after hours of writing. A decent eraser will also help.

Think about your choice of notebook – I brought a lined notebook to my first archive but found myself mostly copying out the layout of book inlays, letterheads, and dust jackets so unlined paper would have been better for this kind of work. Scraps of paper, rather than sticky notes, are helpful for marking pages. Some archives let you take photographs so bring a smartphone or camera and a charger.

Finally, wear appropriate clothing. Archives can sometimes be draughty places and you often aren’t allowed to take your coat so bring a jumper and layer up. It’s also helpful to bring a light tote bag for carrying your equipment, as big rucksacks or suitcases will almost certainly not be allowed in.


3.   Do as much work ahead as possible

You want to make the most out of the limited time you have to access archival material, so get prepared in advance. Make sure all of your research is up-to-date, and have a clear idea of what you want to get from the archive (although be prepared to be flexible!). Ask your supervisor for advice on this, or try to identify the specific type of evidence you need.

I knew that I wanted material on T.S. Eliot’s use of non-English languages, for instance, so I checked the archival catalogue beforehand and made a note of each relevant item plus its shelfmark and the reason I thought it would be useful. Find out what the copyright status of the items are, and whether you are allowed to take photographs of them or copy them.

Before your trip, do a quick review of literature to see what else people have written about these items, including useful details – how the material is organised, for example, or whether there is anything missing. Archival librarians are very friendly and eager to help so if you have any queries ahead of your visit please do get in touch with the relevant person.

On the day, bring an empty notebook and make a note on the front cover detailing the date of the archive trip and the material consulted. During the visit or shortly after, make a heading on each page with the date, the item consulted and the shelf mark/reference so that you know what you’re looking at when you come to reference the archive sources.

4.  Time management is everything

I made a rather monumental mistake during my first trip to the archive. I found myself with thirty minutes before the archive closed (for the summer) to read and transcribe possibly the most relevant document. This document was the holy grail for my research – it was previously unpublished and it outlined Eliot’s views on Europe and European languages, which is basically the topic of my thesis. Unfortunately, I left it until the end of the day to read this document because I had decided to approach Eliot’s archive chronologically.

Furthermore, I couldn’t even get a copy of this document because it was still under a messy publisher’s copyright. Therefore – and I cannot stress this enough – prioritise. Of course it is impossible to tell which documents will be useful and which will be useless from their shelf mark and description alone, but you can make an educated guess. Be willing to abandon a document as soon as you see that it is not immediately relevant to your research, even if it is the most interesting document you have ever read.

Remember to leave a short amount of time at the end of each box or book for reading over what you’ve written, so you can check any details while you still have the materials in front of you.


More tips for identifying and using archives

Can’t work out which archive holds the material you need? Try looking at the acknowledgements or bibliography of the ‘big’ texts for the particular subject area – in my case, Eliot’s letters and the edited scholarly edition of Eliot’s poems. Word of mouth can also help.

Alternatively, try Archives Hub, an online search tool for identifying archive materials and collections. You can search by keyword or browse by topic.


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