A Historian’s Guide to Researching and Archiving – Digital versus Physical Archive Techniques and Tools (part 3)

Today, in part 3 of “A Historian’s Guide to Researching and Archiving” series, we’re discussing digital versus physical archiving techniques and tools. I’ve acquired this information and skills over the course of graduate studies, through trial and error and asking other graduate students, librarians, professors, and archivists, and lots of headaches/moments of frustration. While these posts are intended for advanced research and target a graduate student audience, anyone can use these suggestions to improve their research and archiving skills.

To review, here’s a list of the “basic” research process:

  • Select a topic
  • Locate primary and secondary sources
  • Data Management
  • Research Funding
  • Writing
  • Submission/Publication

Archiving requires a good set of search terms (see my post) on that for more information, knowledge of archival holdings, and a lot of patience. For some fields, thinking mainly U.S. history, it may not be absolutely mandatory to visit a physical archive, as many institutions have digitized their collections and are even OCR searchable! However, for those of us in other areas, completing a major research project isn’t feasible without visiting the stacks. Digital and physical archives have some similarities and differences

Prepping for the Physical Archives:

  • Locate the archive’s website, finding aids, policies and contact the archivist(s) and other graduate students and scholars who have familiarity
    • Networking with the archivists and others who have been to the same archives will help you tremendously — cannot stress/recommend this enough
  • Know the policies – Can you bring your laptop? Can you use a camera? A tripod? Are there requirements about bags? Does the archive require only loose leaf paper or are notebooks ok?
  • Save your work (this overlaps with both digital and physical spaces)
  • Be prepared — have multiple chargers, flash drives, camera memory cards, loose leaf paper or a notebook (note: some archives will not allow you to have loose white paper and may only allow you to use paper they provide), and batteries
  • Letter of introductions may be required
  • Identification (passport or some form of photo ID may be required by an archive)
  • Digital camera, tripod, carrying case — check ahead of your visit to see if these are allowed
    • As discussed with Lisa Munro, camera sensor size matters. Do your research to check your options.
  • Pencil — most archives only allow you to use pencils while working near the documents, so keep a few on hand.
  • Eraser–keep a good eraser handy
  • Gloves–you may need to wear gloves while working with the documents, as a means of protecting them and yourself (mold/mildew/dust)
  • Face mask–a means of protecting yourself from the documents (mold/mildew/dust)
  • Change for a locker–some facilities provide storage lockers that you rent for the day; you’ll need exact change for this (most return the coin when you retrieve your belongings)
    • The lockers at Chile’s Biblioteca Nacional cost 100 pesos, for example

Digital Archives:

  • Pros:
    • More accessible, especially for people with disabilities or for those who cannot or do not want to travel (it’s expensive to research)
    • Sources may be digitized and searchable
    • Great for starting a major research project or locating specific sources
  • Cons:
    • Not all sources from a particular collection may be uploaded online
    • The archive or organization may not allow document downloads
    • May be difficult to navigate without appropriate headers or finding guides (physical archives always have an archivist whom you can chat when you have questions)
    • Likely not sufficient  for completing a major project

My Physical Archive Kit:

  • Sony NEX-3N (discontinued) with an 18-55mm lens (the Alpha 5100 and 6000 are the most similar currently available styles)
  • Moleskine notebook
  • Hand sanitizer (for after working with documents)
  • Toilet paper
  • Snack/meal bar
  • Pencils and erasers
  • Agenda/date book
  • Extra memory cards and batteries
  • External hard drive (I usually leave this in residence and upload all that day’s materials upon returning each day)


Digital Archive Kit:

  • Internet connection
  • Electronic device capable of accessing the sites you need (keep in mind not every website will be properly formatted for surfing on your phone or tablet)
  • Institutional access (many are open access, but some are not)
  • An understanding of the collection and search terms
  • Hard drive space

Do you have any archiving tools, tips, or tricks not included here? Feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Related Links:


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