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Krista Jamieson @ArchiveThoughts
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Introduction to Archival Research: A Thread
This could also rightly be called Archives 101 & Why Theory Matters. This is the way I explain it, other archivists will disagree. Feel free to ask questions or comment how you would explain it differently/how you contextualise it differently.
We're going to start at the beginning. What is an archive? An archive is the documents and records created by a person or institution during the course of their life and/or work. Also the location (physical or digital) where all of these ‘archives’ are stored.
Archives mostly contain primary source material and unpublished material. Not exclusively, but predominantly. Published primary sources are often found in libraries, unpublished in archives & special collections.
(for my fellow archivists: I do not go down the rabbit hole of "what is a record" bc for an intro to how to research in an archive, it doesn't matter. Users want *stuff*, they don't care about our internal debates about whats a record and what isn't. It doesn't matter to them.)
Collections are archives have a lot of the same kinds of materials. What makes them different is how they were brought together. Archives are created through every day work/life. Collections are purposefully brought together based on a theme or subject.
An Individual item, like a piece of correspondence, could be in an archive or a collection. Is it in the papers of the person who wrote or received it? Archive. Is it organized based on the content of the letter? Collection.
In Canada, we practice what is called "total archives" which means we collect all media and formats. Textual, photos, video, etc. Doesn't matter. We also collect stuff from organizations and private citizens.
So far I have used the term "archive" to talk about the location we store stuff and the sets of papers that are donated. We're bad at naming things so the word works either way. In Canada, we also call the papers "archival fonds." Yay for french terms!
The other thing you will hear though, is archive as a verb. What does it mean to archive something? It means we are going to preserve it (store and protect it from damage, physically and or digitally) and provide access to it (do reference, write descriptions, get the word out).
I like to think of preservation and access as two sides to the same coin. You can't access something that hasn't been preserved and there isn't a ton of sense in preserving something no one is able to access.
Access doesn't have to mean freely accessible to everyone, all the time. It just means *someone* has a right to see it. Trust me, you don't want everyone in the world to have free access to your SIN or health records. Restrictions exist for a reason.
As you have probably guessed, archives hold a broad range of materials. People use archives for a lot of different reasons. Genealogists are big archive users, but so are documentary film makers, renovation contractors, journalists, etc.
What any specific archive has in their holdings is related to their mandate, or collection policy. People offer materials, we see if it suits our mandate, we assess its "archival value" and decide if we want to accept the donation.
And this is important: "Archival value" is not a clear cut thing. Its about things like "importance" and "future research value." Holdings are not necessarily representative of society. If fact, they rarely are.
Archive holdings represent the dominant values at the time the materials were collected. That means we have the papers of a lot of rich dead white dudes. Because of systemic racism/sexism/everything-ism. They were often contextualised in highly colonial ways.
(I usually stop here to let people ask questions about archives in general, so this is not a smooth transition.)
When should you use archives? Well archives are basically the papers and documents and files people like you and me create every day. Just, you know, old. Old-er, anyway. Stuff can make it into an archive in as little as 2 years.
If you can imagine how messy your own stuff is and how you talk about 5 things in an email to someone, materials in archives are similar. They're messy. They're idiosyncratic. They have holes. They don't just spell it out for you or list the exact thing you're researching.
Maybe I'm a bad archivist for saying this, but archival research is not always appropriate. Its good when you're researching something obscure, when you're looking for background details that didn't make it into published sources, and when you're looking for alt perspectives
e.g. you want to know about (white) women's suffrage in Alberta, Canada. What about it? The official government position? Politicians personal views? The views of the suffragettes? Joe Blow's opinion? There isn't a single narrative for anything in history. Ever.
Also, documents will use whatever terminology was common at the time of creation. Archivists do not change the terms used in documents. It will be offensive. Keep in mind context and truthfulness; the perspective a document has always matters.
That's another point: just because something in an archive states something doesn't make it 100% true or infallible. People make mistakes. People lie. People didn't have all the info. People are biased. Something being old doesn't erase those facts.
Finding aids (I'll get back to what this is) may also use offensive language. Sometimes it is out of date and sometimes it is purposeful to provide an access point to materials that use the term. That's the joy of working with historical documents.
So: you are working on something that def needs archival research. You have scoped your research by location, time period, key actors involved, and you know what perspectives you're interested in. What next? Figure out what archives to contact.
How? ok, so this is THE HARDEST part about archives. It isn't about what you're researching, you have to ask yourself *Where would the information I am looking for have been recorded?* Who would have written it down? Based on that, you can figure out what archive might have it.
Seriously. It's ridiculous, I know. There is no global database, what ended up where can get messy, things didn't always end up where they should be, not everything got written down, and not everything that got written down survived. Welcome to archives! Its fun times.
Everything is also not on the internet. Sometimes we still use card catalogues, hard copy 'guide the holdings' from the 90s, binders of paper... sometimes we have to check all of the above plus 2 databases to even figure out if we have what you're looking for.
And before anyone asks, no archivists do not know the content of every box their archive has. Mine has 30k boxes of paper and a few thousand more of photos, AV, architectural plans, etc. I'm not a machine. Its not possible to know it all. Please be realistic.
When you think you've found an archive that might have what you need, contact them! Before walking into their reading room! Save everyone time & energy. Tell them your project and research question. Give them your contact info. Its basic but important. We're trying to help!
Random other important things to know about archival research: Not everything is online (documents or finding aids). Non-circulating collections: you will have to visit the reading room to look at stuff. Plan ahead: schedule your visit and don’t wait until the last minute.
We want to get you the right stuff. We don't want to pull 100 boxes for your 500 word blog post. We also don't want to pull you 3 folders for your PhD dissertation. If you're making a documentary you probably want to see a lot of visual things. Knowing what its for helps us.
Person doing reference might ask you follow up questions to clarify or send you finding aids, inventories, guides, or links to online searches and resources. We can identify what you think might be helpful. You tell us what you want to look through.
Finding aids: (told you I'd get back to it!) this is how archives describe things. Its our equivalent of a book catalog. But for large (or small) quantities of messy... stuff that people have created. We describe the whole, then the parts and sub parts (hierarchical description)
I find that knowing the contextual who what where when, etc of what you're researching can help a lot in figuring out which finding aids to look at. The Scope and Content of the finding aid is going to be the biggest help.
Scope: what kind of documents. Content: subject matter. Combo of the two will tell you what's helpful. Press releases have very different info than personal correspondence, for example.
Once you're actually in researching at an archive: RECORD CITATIONS. OMG write down where you found something. We are not going through 30 boxes to track it down for you. Sorry but just... no. Chicago ch 14 has info on citing unpublished works.
Also check for the archives rules. For example, we don't allow pens, food, water, bags, jackets, or flash photography in our reading room. (these are pretty run of the mill rules.)
How to interpret what you find (basics): 1) Content: Relevant facts and adequate evidence. 2) Context & Credibility: Account of events, qualifications, access to information, conflict of interest, social perspective, internal consistency, external consistency, believability
3) Authority of Source: Credentials and relevance. 4) Integrity: Completeness of documentation, real and unedited.
5) Truthfulness: Just because it’s in an archive doesn’t make it True. Everyone, including the author of an archival record, is fallible. Context of a document (who wrote it, why, the intended audience, etc) matters as much as the content.
Alright well that was 41 tweets long. IRL it takes about an hour and a half. I have side anecdotes. I try to be funny occasionally. There is audience participation. You can DM me for the slides if you're interested! Thanks for reading this far to those who made it!
tl;dr archives are messy. there are gaps & bias. Archives are organized by who created stuff. You can't search by subject: have to ask where info would have been recorded. Talk to the archivist! Its not all online. archival =/= Truth, just old(er). Everyone is fallible.
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