Some dos and don’ts for historians beginning their archival research

By Fabienne Chamelot*

After conducting archival research in Vietnam and Senegal as part of her PhD project, Fabienne is keen to share some of the insights gained through her recent fieldwork experience.

Methodology and evaluation of source materials usually carve out the lion’s share off the content of  History courses. Less is generally said about how to search an archive or how to find relevant information. Yet the first couple of times in an archive can be puzzling or even challenging, especially abroad where a young (or not so young) researcher can feel out of their comfort zone. While each archive is unique and should be approached accordingly, a few general rules, as obvious as they may seem, are worth bearing in mind. So here are a few tips:

  • Quality over quantity. In some archives permission to take photos of the documents comes in handy but can also lead to a counter-productive effect which is that historians may photograph a tremendous number of documents without a proper selection process. A photo is easily taken, free of charge, and it can be very tempting to photograph as many records as you can “just in case”. Yet these documents will have to be processed, sorted, explored at some point and eventually… selected. When you get back home with your thousands of photos, you will be easily overwhelmed and find you will not use half of them. So, the earlier it is done, the more you save yourself some time.

In addition, many archivists are experienced enough to have a sense of when a researcher is doing a good job at selecting relevant material for their topic, or when they are just being unreasonable and “craving for archives”. Handing over archives is only a small part of an archivist’s job and from their point of view, it can be a waste of time as well.

  • Know your basic notions. Having a few basic notions of archival science will make your stay in the archives easier. An archive centre is not a documentation centre or a library and the classification techniques are quite different – although this is less true for internet or digital archives than paper archives. For instance, being aware of the difference between a series and a fonds (or a collection for that matter) will only take you a couple of hours and will save you time as well as help you raise questions which archivists can answer in a more helpful way. For example, an archivist does not think in terms of topic but in terms of fonds. For that reason, you do not look for a topic in the archives but for a fonds in relation to your topic. This nuance may make a difference and help you to engage in a fruitful conversation with an archivist. In short, try to help the archivist to help you.

There is also a very immediate practical benefit to this approach because the search tools in an archive, such as the inventory or guide to sources, will have been developed according to these very notions.

  • Be patient, especially abroad. Archive policies and rules vary from one country to another and sometimes from one archive centre to another. Try not to take access to archives for granted. Depending on the location, you will find ease of access to archives can vary enormously. This needs to be considered and anticipated before you start your research trip (for example, sometimes lengthy application procedures for derogations/special permissions to see certain fonds).

In addition, the work culture and social habits you will encounter can also be different from those you are familiar with. Flexibility and humility could make a real difference in those instances. For example, conceptions and even definitions of efficiency or organisation can be very different from those you know. Many countries and cultures do have different standards than those you grew up with. Instead of confronting it, try to understand and embrace it; you may find yourselves enjoying new ways to socialize and acquire new perspectives on your work in the process.

  • Find an insider. In case of difficulty, try to find someone familiar with the archives you are working with, preferably local themselves, and ask for advice regarding the best way to proceed.

*Fabienne Chamelot  is a final-year PhD Student at the University of Portsmouth, researching French colonial administration and policy in the 20th century, with a specific focus on the management and organisation of colonial archives throughout the empire and within the French state.

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