Musings on Archival Research, Methods and Workflow

By August 23, 2013

…or how to hack your summer archives trip and come off victorious.

This post grew out of a conversation I had with fellow JI-er Christopher Jones during one of his lengthy jaunts around the Atlantic seaboard during his summer dissertation research. I have the good fortune to be located not too far from the American Antiquarian Society and could offer him room & board during his research trip there, and since I didn?t set foot inside an archives all summer I was living vicariously through everyone else?s treasure-hunting. We got to talking about archival research method: how we historians actually do what we do inside the archives, and reflecting on how we all get very little graduate-level instruction on the nitty-gritty of how to do this, and how it might benefit our JI community to have a broader conversation about it.

As my contribution I?d like to highlight the exemplary work of a colleague of mine, Shane Landrum (@cliotropic), who is finishing his PhD at Brandeis while teaching at Florida International University. His dissertation looks at the history of birth certificates and birth registration which has taken him pretty deep into the records of the United States Childrens? Bureau and other Progressive-era bureaucracies. Think reams and reams of reports and documentation. Shane?s not only a whiz at digital methods for historical research but also extraordinarily generous in making his process transparent. I got a taste of his techniques in a talk for a 2010 grad conference at Yale, ?The Past?s Digital Presence? (here?s the online version of his talk from that session). He uses Omeka to publish some of the best of his (public domain) finds and has posted at some length about the tools and programs that have honed his approach to the research trip. Because of that talk I also invested in a monopod for my digital camera which makes photographing documents (when permitted) a lot easier and with much better quality than hand-held … a mini-version of the fabulous piece of equipment that AAS conservator was using in the above photo. He?s also got great advice for what to do with all those digital images as far as naming conventions, database organization, tagging and retrieval for later use, etc. It?s also been a topic, not surprisingly, at various THATCamps ? see for example Miriam Posner?s 2011 post ?Batch-Processing Photos from Your Archival Trip? that grew out of a THATCamp Southeast session that discusses using Hazel (for Mac), PDF-OCR software (which has come a long way but still ain?t perfect) and Zotero.

I also suspect that we have a lot of collective wisdom in the JI community of contributors and readers. So please, don?t be shy about sharing your techniques, ideas, or frustrations with how to manage archival research – especially during the time-compressed trips that happen during the summer. My dissertation research (from the mid-1990s, sigh) lives in 3 boxes of overstuffed binders in the attic, mainly copied by archival staff at my request at something like $0.25 per page, and nearly completely inaccessible even by ME. Surely there?s a better way in this century! Let?s talk about it. Go.

Article filed under Digital Humanities From the Archives Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous


  1. Tona, this post could not have been more timely. I’ve spent the last week putting off attempting to organize the thousands of photos I took in various archives this summer, and your links to Shane Landrum and Miriam Posner’s posts have suddenly made that task seem not-quite-so-overwhelming.

    Thanks again for putting me up during my trip to Worcester. I’m already coming up with reasons for a return visit. Here’s to hoping this post initiates some helpful discussion.

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2013 @ 8:29 am

  2. This is a great conversation starter, Tona. Thank you. As someone who deals primarily in pop culture (and thus completed my dissertation without setting foot in an archive), I look forward to learning from the JI community…

    Comment by Cristine — August 23, 2013 @ 9:22 am

  3. During my undergraduate work (at BYU), I had the very good fortune of accompanying one of my professors on a research trip and doing archival training in some of the most important archives in the country (the Houghton, Beinecke, Massachusetts Historical Society, etc.). I didn’t realize at the time how fabulous this experience was. Something like it should really be part of the training for students of history, if not at the undergraduate level then for graduate students. I’ve also had some other professors in grad school emphasize the archives (book history classes are fabulous for this) and that has been hugely helpful as well.

    As for making the most of limited time in the archive, one of the cardinal rules that’s often been emphasize to me is the preparatory work that goes in ahead of the archive visit: research in finding aids, biographical info, etc. etc. It pays major dividends.

    Thanks for this post, Tona. I’m excited to move into the research phase of my grad work.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 23, 2013 @ 9:23 am

  4. Ryan T, say more about what you learned from your prof as you shadowed that research in some of the best spots. Inquiring minds want to know. And what of that hands-on experience could/should translate into more formalized training?

    Comment by Tona H — August 23, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  5. My new favorite program ever is Scrivener. In a nutshell, it allows you to import any kind of media file to a research folder (which you can heavily customize for your needs, with sub-folders, names, etc.) so your research is in the same program as your writing. It’s intended more as a first draft creator, so when you’ve got that first draft done, the program will export (including footnotes and all other formatting) to Word or other popular word processing programs.

    It also allows you to create internal links to those research media files. So let’s say you’ve got a PDF copy of a journal article you’re citing. In the text of your writing, you can add a footnote, then create a direct link within the program to the PDF file so you can immediately refer it without having to hunt it down. Or, if you’ve got hundreds of photographs of (to use the example above) birth certificates, you can link to individual ones as well. And each media file allows you to tag, name, and describe the file. Got 500 photos of death certificates? Create folders based on location, or year, or name. Then tag each photo with a brief description and reference.

    Best of all, you can change to view a corkboard-style overview of everything you have. So let’s say I have 50 photographs in a folder and I want a general sense of what they are. Click on the overview option, and note cards pop up with your description written on them so you can quickly grasp what your research in one area is saying.

    No, I don’t work for Scrivener, I just love it that much 🙂 It takes some adjustment, so if you give it a whirl, take the time to go methodically through the tutorial files that come with the program.

    Comment by John Hatch — August 23, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  6. Tona, this is great! Thanks for writing it up and initiating a conversation on archival practices and best procedures. Working in an archives for a past year has really taught me a lot in terms of my own historical research, and I think one of the main things I’ve discovered is the value of, when you can, reaching out to archivists at an institution you’re going to visit can be an excellent way to tap into institutional knowledge. It may be a dead end in some cases – some individuals may not reach out in assistance – but usually, archivists and staff are more than happy to share their knowledge, which can lead to finding things that you may not have been able to find on your own.

    Comment by Ardis S. — August 23, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  7. Digital cameras make all the difference. Though I still consider the National Archives my own sixth circle of hell in terms of calling for sources, the open photography policy is amazing. Several years ago my first trip involved lots of photocopies and lots of notes. In the trips that followed I learned very quickly that a digital camera enabled me to get photos of thousands of documents. Though it would take months to go through the documents after returning home, and there was inevitably some page or another that I hadn’t focused properly, the amount of work accomplished compared to that first trip was astonishing.

    Though I understand that photocopies and scans are a way in which some archives make money, it is now so much more painful to not have that capability. While the Huntington is my favorite research experience ever, their limitations on photography time and kind of camera (no SLRS, nothing that you can hear the shutter) detracts. Researching in the CHL this summer once again as a patron was a rude awakening.

    Tona, good thoughts. And thanks for the link to the monopod. I had a good tripod I used when I was doing research for the CHL, but eventually had to return it. $50 is a great price for something so incredibly helpful.

    Comment by jjohnson — August 23, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

  8. Tona, your posts always phenomenal. This is no exception!

    Like Ryan, I find that preparation is the key to success. If you know what you’re looking at, looking for, and what else is in constellation collections, you have a better chance at finding both what you’re looking for and those lovely moments of discovering something you weren’t looking for.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 24, 2013 @ 10:47 am

  9. Tona, my trip was essentially an introduction to archival work: we had some discussions about library and archival systems, preservation, acquisitions, retrieval, funding, the relationship between archives and universities, etc. I learned to locate, request, and handle documents, and we talked about strategies for recording and organization information: source notes, transcription, photography, etc.

    We also talked about archival “politics”–about issues of access and control, the “gatekeeper” mentality of some archivists, the importance of getting to know and develop relationships with the archivists, etc.

    As to what precisely could be integrated into training, I just think an immersive experience is very worthwhile. If discussions of some of these other strategic issues could be interwoven with that, and then applied with some sort of oversight, so much the better.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 24, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

  10. […] Juvenile Instructor Musings on Archival Research, Methods and .or how to hack your summer archives trip and come off victorious. This post grew out of a conversation I had with fellow JI-er Christopher Jones during one of his lengthy jaunts around the Atlantic seaboard during his. […]

    Pingback by 8 Research Methods Blogs - The Ultimate Keyword Research Website — September 20, 2013 @ 7:14 am


Recent Comments

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here.”