Archives for Academic Research
Using archives for university and college research
Archives hold a wealth of material for academic researchers and students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, particularly those carrying out historical research. Archives provide original source material for the historian; many records of great value have never been used in the course of academic research, while others offer great potential for re-interpretation.
Before you start
- Most academic research sets out to answer a question or a set of questions. Archives can provide an excellent source for answering such questions, but when framing enquiries it can be helpful to carry out preliminary work to establish whether relevant records exist and whether they are easily accessible. This is particularly important for undergraduate dissertations, where the time available to carry out research may be limited.
- Be realistic about how long the research will take. Very few copies of original records are available online, so you will need to visit the archive repository to consult material there (and unlike libraries, you cannot 'borrow' records). Using archives is fascinating and can provide you with much useful material, but you may find that it takes longer than you expect; and remember that most archive repositories are open only during 'office hours' in the working week.
- In some archives, you will be able to carry out photocopying yourself, or use a digital camera to take photographs of documents. In others, copying can only be carried out by staff, and it may not be possible to do it immediately on request. Charges for photocopying may be higher than those usual in university libraries.
Finding records relevant to your research
Archives, unlike library material, are not arranged by subject. They are arranged by 'creator' - all the records created by an individual or an organisation are kept together, as the archive of that individual or organisation. The archive of a public body (a local council, for example) will contain material relating to a range of subjects, as will the archive of a business, a landed estate or a prominent individual whose personal papers have been deposited in an archive repository. If you are researching the activities of the council, or the business, the landed estate or the prominent individual, you will probably need to look at all the records within these particular archives. However, you may want to find records on a particular subject which will involve using records from a number of different archives - if you are researching the development of public health services, for example, you may need to look at some records from the archive of the local council, some from the archive of an individual involved in public health reform, and others from a number of different individual archives.