A Newbie’s Guide to the Archives

Researching at the National Archives, or one of its many branches across the country, is something few of us have the chance to do – or even a reason to do. Unless you’re researching something pretty darn specific, chances are you’ll never need to set foot into one of their research rooms.

The Archives are a whole different experience from doing research at your local library or museum, though! There are many rules to follow, and for good reason:  the files located there are often the only copies in existence. They have to be there, for as long as they last, for anyone who wants to see them. Most of the files are fragile; historic preservation is a relatively new thing in American history, and you may be looking at papers and pages that want to disintegrate before your eyes.

I know I did.

I spent several days (spaced over several weeks) traveling to the National Archives in Kansas City, working with four boxes containing more than 3,000 documents that are all related to the book I’m slowly putting together. Here’s some tips and tricks I picked up:

You can photograph things yourself. Copies are astronomically expensive if you have the Archives do it (though that is an option, particularly if you live far away; you’ll also have to pay for shipping); they’re still expensive if you do it. But if you have a good-quality DSLR or even a good-quality point and shoot camera, you can take all the photos you want for free. I used my Nikon Coolpix L820, and they turned out great. The research rooms have special light tables set up where you can screw your camera into a special ‘upside down’ tripod. They even provide you with the proper settings to get the best-quality shots possible.

No bags are allowed in the research room. Lockers are provided for your coat, camera bag, laptop bag, etc., and you’re given a key to your locker. No purses, either. You can carry your laptop, camera, and cell phone into the research room. You’ll have to open your laptop at the end of the day so they can check to make sure you haven’t tried to smuggle anything out (Yes, apparently this is a thing!).

You’ll have to sign in every time, and you’ll be issued a National Archives Researcher Card. These expire in a year, and they give you permission to do research ONLY at that branch of the Archives. So mine gave me permission to use the records at the National Archives at Kansas City. You’ll have to present it every time you go. If you do research at another branch, you’ll have to get one there, too. Here’s a more thorough explanation:  https://www.archives.gov/research/start/researcher-card.html#orientation

I hope it goes without saying, but no documents can ever leave the research room.

One box and one folder on the table at any given time. If you’ve got a file that has multiple boxes/folders, the rules are simple:  one box at a time, one folder at a time. Put that folder up before you get out another. They will give you an 11 x 14 laminated ‘marker’ you can use to mark your place in the box, in fact. This is so folders don’t become misplaced, and papers don’t end up in the wrong folder.

cover pager kimmel deposition 1Bare hands only! You will never, ever wear white gloves to handle documents. There’s a specific reason for this:  the cotton gloves, no matter how well-made, are far more likely to snag fragile, brittle page edges than your bare fingers are. Don’t believe me? Put on a pair of gloves. Now go pet your dog. How much hair do you get on the gloves? Exactly. For extremely fragile items, you can ask the staff to train you in how to use the ‘spatulas’ to turn pages, but this is tricky too. Honestly, I found the easiest method was to use two hands – one to pick up the edge, the other to help lift and turn. This photo is one of mine; this is an example of just how fragile the documents can be.

The staff are there to help. If you have any questions at all, ASK. Their first responsibility is to the items in the Archives; their second responsibility is to you.

Yes, there really is a Big Black Binder of Bad and Banned People. I’m sure it has an official name, but this is the list of people that are never, ever to be allowed into the Archives. They include people who have destroyed documents and most especially, people – including former employees – who have stolen documents, either for themselves, or to sell online.

And as I found out, not everything is in the online databases. It took me MONTHS to figure out exactly where my case files were, because even though I had the docket number, the case number, and I KNEW where they ought to be, they just . . . weren’t. It took some digging by the Archives staff (more than a month, in fact), to locate them in storage. I picture this storage as resembling the crate-lined cavern at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So if you’re looking online and you know which Archives location your files should be stored in – just shoot them an email and ask.

Documents are fragile! Just to reiterate. Most have not had the benefit of proper storage for their entire existence. Mine had water damage; some were stuck together. Mold and other allergens are a definite possibility. If you don’t feel comfortable handling a particularly fragile document, ASK THE STAFF. They’ll be happy to help you get it sorted. But please, don’t try it yourself and ruin things.

Working at the Archives is a dream come true for a historian – it means we’ve finally stumbled on something that could be career-making, or at the very least, something we’re passionately obsessed with. H0pefully these tips might make it slightly less nerve-wracking if you’re embarking on this for the first time.

Here’s a link to the National Archives’ ‘Research Our Records’ page:  https://www.archives.gov/research/

And here’s a list of the branch locations across the country:  http://www.archives.gov/locations/

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