Tools & Techniques for Archival Research

Prioritize and Strategize

Use your finding aids to prioritize which boxes and folders are most important to see first; then list which ones you will see if you have time. You can then set up a storage and naming system that will make it easier to store the images that you take as you go along.

A mistake that some researchers make is to think that because they have a camera, they can just photograph everything and look at it later. You need to know before you go how large the collection is and how manageable it will be to get through.

Create a Personal Policy

Sometimes you are better off not taking a photo:

Photographing documents may mean you can shorten your research trip and the associated costs of travel and hotel, but it does not save time in the long run.

Remember that scanning/photographing a document is only putting off the real work of research:note taking and writing. While a computer full of scans might be handy to refer back to if you ever need to verify a quotation, the process of organizing, storing, and retrieving documents you collect while researching can become a full-time job on its own and can act as a form of productive procrastination. Eventually, you will have to read and take notes on the archival materials that you collect. It's best to make good decisions on when to slow down and take notes during your research rather than just accumulating a large number of documents that you will have to sort through later.

You might want to create a policy for yourself on when to photograph and when to take careful notes. For example: If you find you are transcribing more than one paragraph, consider photographing it; otherwise, prioritize boxes and folders that are most important to you and move more slowly through documents.

Allow for serendipity: other benefits of slowing down are that sometimes as you work, the documents will lead you to other places in the collection that you hadn't planned.