Some Lessons Learned from the Archive

I meant to post while I was on my archival trip, but I was so tired from my hectic days that I was unable to. When I got back, I began the task of making sure my data was saved and sorting through it. Now that I’ve had some time to regroup, I would like to discuss some of the lessons I learned during my archival trip.

  1. Adjust your tactics if you need to.

When I started my archival trip, I had an idea about the amount of material that I would be available. I was planning to take some notes on the content of annual reports and other documents while also saving photos for reference later. I quickly realized that I would not have time to take many notes because it was taking too long to do both. By the second day, I had switched to documenting the box and folder information for files and jotting down just a line or two about the document as I flipped through taking photos with my phone.

In addition to adjusting my note-taking strategy, I also had to adjust how I saved my archival photos. Before I left for my trip, I downloaded the Box app to my phone. At the archive, I would photograph documents and then upload them to Box. While the pictures were loading, I would flip back through the materials and jot down a few notes. However, during the first week of the trip, I realized that I did not have time wait for the files to upload to Box if I was going to photograph all the documents I wanted to access. By the end of the first week, I was mostly photographing while at the archive and uploading documents when I got back to the hotel. I continued this process during the second week. Because of the amount of photos I took, I had to be careful to upload photos every day and delete them from my phone’s memory, so that I would have room for the next day’s photographs.

The amount of photos I was uploading led to additional problems however. I soon realized that taking upwards of 1,500 photos per day was draining my phone’s battery very quickly. I brought my phone charger to the archive every day. One day, my phone died even though it was plugged in. I was taking so many photos that my battery continued to drop, despite the phone being plugged in. I adjusted my strategy after that to plug in my phone as soon as I arrived, so that it would stay charged the whole day.

  1. Come up with an organization system and stick to it.

I took care to make sure that my photographs were uploaded using box, folder, and file names. I labeled all boxes with [box] in my notes and in my Box. I labeled folders with [folder] in both. This will be helpful when I go to cite my material as the box and folder information will be clearly identifiable.

I would also recommend having redundant, secure storage. I uploaded my files to Box while I was there, but I also purchased a thumb drive that has duplicate copies of my files. This makes it less likely that I will lose data if there’s a problem with one of my storage systems.

  1. Look at everything that you can.

If you’re lucky enough to have your archival trip paid for by university, department or outside funding, look at everything that you can. I took the approach of documenting almost anything that could be relevant to my dissertation. Although I will not use all the documents now, some of them will be helpful for revising my dissertation into a book. One important thing to remember is that you never know what information will be valuable and when you will be able to access those materials again.

  1. Archival work is tiring, so take a break in the evening.

Academics are notoriously optimistic when it comes to time. We all think that the summer will be a time when we finally write things that we’ve been sitting on for months. Sometimes that happens, but more often, we tend to get a little done and procrastinate some more. It’s not surprising then that some of us may over-plan archival trips. I had hoped to look at some of the documents in evening or make more notes for my dissertation. However, I realized that taking photographs for 7 hours day was really tiring. When I got back to my hotel, all I wanted to do was watch HGTV, and that’s what I did. I’m thankful that I took that break because it left me more energized the next day to get all the files that needed.

  1. Have a document to take notes on observations and thoughts that occur while you’re looking at the materials.

As I mentioned before, I had a document where I took notes about the files I looked at, where they were located (box and folder), and brief notes about what those files were. I also had a separate document that I called “archival thoughts.” I had initially brought a paper notebook that I thought would serve this purpose, but I ended up using my computer because it was faster than making notes in a notebook.

In my “thoughts” document, I made notes about overall trends that I noticed or information that might be relevant to my dissertation that I hadn’t thought about before. By looking through such a vast trove of information, I was able to gain insights on how to approach my topic that I would not have had without flipping through so many documents. Even though I wasn’t able to take comprehensive notes on the documents while I was there, I was still able to glean some inspiration from the vast amount of information I reviewed over my two week trip.

Concluding Thoughts

These are a few insights that I had while at the archive. Some of them reaffirmed what I had read about archival research before making my visit, such as focusing on organization. Reading about archival trips can help you prepare, but you learn a lot by being in the archive. I hope that others will be able to use this as they advance their own archival research. Finally, when you’re done with your research, thank the archivist and the archival team. You should thank them before you leave, but I also recommend sending a thank you email after your trip.