Research in Archives

A Beginner's Guide

Marlene Oliveira

Published on 27 April, 2024
Cover photo: "Boxes in the University Archives" by University of Illinois Library (CC BY 2.0 DEED

Archival research is a fundamental part of studying the past. Whether you're learning more about  relatives and building your family tree, studying events in history or getting to know historical figures in a more detailed way, a trip to an archive can expand your understanding of events and people. However, for a beginner, this sort of trip can be daunting. Where do you even start? What can you bring with you? And how do you deal with the information you collected?

This guide aims to provide a basic overview of archival research for beginners. We will cover the very basics as well as include some useful tips and some advanced details to make your archival research easier to manage. Are you ready? Then let's go!

Estimated reading time: 40 minutes.

This guide serves as reference for anyone interested in doing research in archives and is subject to changes as good practices evolve. If you come across any other relevant information that can help clarify or expand the topics below, please get in touch

Are archives really for me?

Absolutely! Archives are for everyone and archival research is a key component of studying the lives of Anne Lister and her contemporaries. Given that most of the information you can get that is not part of Anne’s journals is obtained from unpublished documents held in archives, you're likely to have to contact and work with an archive in order to access key documents to assist with your research.

The vast majority of Lister-related documents known are held by public archives, such as the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS), and are accessible to anyone who may want to consult them for research or just out of general curiosity. If you’re not studying Anne Lister, but are interested in local or family history, or would like to learn more about your house, archives are likely to have information to help you on your journey of uncovering all the information you need.

Prepare your visit

The first step in planning a trip to an archive is knowing what you want to have a look at. For that purpose, it’s useful to check if the archive you want to visit has an online catalogue. In the absence of that, you can email the archive in question and ask if they have anything that may help in your research. 

Once you identify potentially interesting items, you can make a list of any references you think may be useful for your research and prioritise references that seem more promising. To stay organised, you can use a spreadsheet. Here’s a template that you can use as reference:

Archive Tracker Example

Once you have that sorted out, you can then decide if you’d like to make an appointment to visit the archives and see the documents yourself. Alternatively, if a remote research service is available, you can explore remote options.

Here’s a workshop from a few of our Packed with Potential contributors to get you started on planning your archive adventure:

Proposed Toolkit

Often, archives rules do not allow you to bring coats or bags with you into their search rooms. Furthermore, writing utensils that use ink are usually also not allowed in order to prevent accidents that may damage documents. Each archive has their own rules for what you can and cannot bring with you when you visit, so don’t forget to check the rules in advance as you prepare your visit. 

However, there are a few items that you will almost certainly need during your visit. Here’s a proposed toolkit to help you get started in building your own toolkit:

example of an archive toolkit, including: a black camera and battery, some white cards, a green pencil, a folded transparent plastic bag, and a small black notebook.
Example of a basic archive toolkit. Photo by Marlene Oliveira.

Other possible items for your toolkit may include:

*Note: Some archives may require you to have a specific archives card. Registration for that purpose usually requires a valid form of ID with a photo, so don’t forget to check with the staff of the archives you’re visiting if this is going to be necessary.

Digging in archives is dirty work! Photo by Susanne Piotrowski.

At the archives

You have done your preliminary research, ordered the items for your visit, and sorted out what to bring with you on the day. Now the time has come to actually go to the archives and look at original items that may help with your research. Exciting, right?

Here’s a workshop by the team at WYAS Calderdale, which gives you an introduction to the world of archives and what you can expect when you visit their office:

Handling Documents

One of the best parts of doing research in archives is getting to look at and handle original documents. Whilst digital copies have their purpose and make things easier if you live far away from the archives that hold the documents you’re interested in, nothing replaces the feeling of handling an original. Depending on how well preserved a document is, this could be a very straightforward experience or require a little bit of care (and sometimes a spare hand from the staff). 

Oftentimes, archives give you information prior to your visit regarding how you should handle their documents safely and those are the rules you should always follow. However, if you have not been supplied with this sort of information, here are a few useful tips:

pieces of black foam over a green table that are supporting an open book with a spine visibly damaged

Using foam and to support a book at an angle. Photo by Marlene Oliveira.

a dusty large roll of papers over a brown table

An example of an oversized item: a court roll. Photo by Marlene Oliveira.

Gloves or no Gloves?

Ah the classic dilemma that makes many a novice researcher wonder and serves as a popular joke amongst professionals. The answer is rather simple: for the vast majority of documents, so long as you have clean and dry hands, you don’t need to wear gloves to handle documents.

However, there are cases in which gloves are a must (i.e. for handling photos or items that may have coatings made with toxic substances, such as books with green covers painted with ink that may contain arsenic). In these cases, the staff will let you know beforehand if you should wear gloves to handle an item and oftentimes you’ll be provided with the gloves you’ll need to do so. 

If you’re curious about this topic, check out this discussion about gloves from a Conservation standpoint:

"Glove Up!" is an episode of "The C Word - The Conserver's Podcast". This episode was hosted by Jenny Mathiasson, Kloe Rumsey, and Christina Rozeik. (CC BY-NC 4.0 DEED)

Photography in archives and Copyright

Photographing a document is the easiest way to get a copy in situ that you can later read, transcribe, and annotate. However, deciding what to photograph and being allowed to photograph it are two different problems. Depending on access restrictions to collections, it could happen that the item you need for your research cannot be copied. In this case, you’ll usually be informed of that restriction or, if you’re not sure, you can check with the archives staff and observe whatever rules that may be in place for that item/collection. Don't forget to check if photography is allowed before you take any photos of archival material.

Photography in archives will also inevitably intersect with Copyright, so you will for sure have to agree to rules that stipulate how you can use those copies (more often than not, photography for private research is permitted, but you should always check before you photograph anything). 

As you photograph documents, add their references to any copyright forms you may need to fill in. This will help you keep track of which items you copied already. When you’re done, you can snap a picture of the form for your own records so you can consult it later on if you need it.

Here’s a workshop about Copyright in archives by the team at West Yorkshire Archive Service Calderdale to help you get a basic idea of how Copyright may influence your research:

After your visit

So you have completed your first archive trip and you have a lot of useful material for your research. How do you keep organised now?

Organizing your research

It can be daunting to sort a large number of photos of archival material, as well as notes made whilst you were at the archives. However, this is a problem that has a solution that adapts to your personal system, depending on how much time you’d like to invest on it.

The simplest way to organise your research, if you’re not too bothered, is to backup all your photos and notes in a manner that makes it easier for you to traverse it quickly when needed. Some people like to organise their images by archive reference, others go by topic, but in the end you choose which system works best for you. 

To get you started, here are a some suggestions:

Organising folders by archive reference helps immensely in this scenario.

Always use two types of backup to ensure that you have a way to recover your data if something happens.

Complementing your research

Though archival material often serves as a fundamental source in historical research, it may not be enough to support your theories or to tell a story with as much detail as possible. In order to do that, it’s advisable that you look for more information in other sources and see how this fits with the archival material you’ve studied. Often, local historians have studied topics that are either close or similar to what you’re interested in, so their works can provide information about the way of life in the period you’re studying or focus on a specific area of knowledge that may prove relevant to your studies. Libraries and local historical societies play a key role in this, so it’s advisable that you explore what other resources are available and see what information you can find to add context to the archival records you have seen. 

Here’s a talk by Calderdale Libraries showcasing some of the resources available to researchers:

Other useful guides

Guide for Family Historians

Explains some of the commonly used records for family history research.

Guide for House History

Explains some of the commonly used records for researching the history of a house or building.

Guide for Local Historians

Explains some of the commonly used records for local history research.

Publishing your research

You’ve gathered info, made notes, and now reached a stage in which you want to publish your research. How do you go about it?

Here’s a workshop about doing this:

If you intend to include images or transcripts of unpublished items of archival material, do not forget to contact the archives from which you obtained those to request permission to publish these materials, given that some may be subject to restrictions. 



Special thanks to Jude Dobson, Steph Gallaway, Lucia Falzari, Sarah Wingrove, Susanne Piotrowski, and Kat Williams for their feedback and for sharing tips that may be useful for beginners. Thank you also to the archives and local studies teams in Calderdale and elsewhere, who over the years have answered numerous questions about handling documents, copyright, and other matters that directly or indirectly affect our research. 

How to cite this guide

If you'd like to cite this guide in your works, please do so in a manner similar to this:

Oliveira, Marlene. “Research in Archives - A Beginner's Guide” Packed with Potential. (accessed MONTH DAY, YEAR).

Note: Don't forget to replace "MONTH", "DAY", and "YEAR" with the corresponding date in which you accessed this article.