A Student Researcher’s Top Tips for Starting Archival Research
By: Ethan Small
During the Summer of 2022, I was fortunate enough to spend some time exploring a local archive for a research project as a student at Huron University College, in London, Ontario. This archive was one of many Anglican Church archives scattered across Canada, and it contained a wealth of documents from congregations in the area. The records I dealt with were dated from 1830 to about 1950, and dealt primarily with churches located on and around nearby reserves. This was my first time doing archival work, and I’ll admit that I was nervous.
Because the materials I was working with were connected to nearby reserves, it was imperative that these documents be handled with extra care. In preparation for my research, I completed training to learn the principals of OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession) through the First Nations Information Governance Centre. This training emphasized the importance of Indigenous ownership and influence over Indigenous documents, including archival materials and the research based on said materials. If your research involves Indigenous materials, ensure you are in contact with the communities connected to these materials. Communities must have control over their own data, and this includes control over the collection of data from archives and publication of findings based on said data. In the case of my research, it was my supervising Professor who was connected to educators from the community related to the records I was examining, and they worked together to establish the project I have been a part of. I have also made the choice not to name the community here in the interest of protecting privacy. Whether you are a first-time researcher or a seasoned historian, it is important to consider the ethical implications of your archival research. Consider how your work could be used or abused by others and how the existence and sharing of certain types of documents connect to current equity issues. Particularly if you are not from the community you are researching, consider how your work will impact marginalized communities, and work to ensure these communities are involved in your project and in control of the sharing of sensitive materials.
Visiting an archive for the first time can be an exciting but overwhelming experience. I hope by sharing my experiences and tips in this guide, I can help to ease your fears and leave you feeling better prepared to begin research of your own! If you have never been to an archive, I would highly recommend you look into it. It is a valuable experience for anyone, whether you are a student, a hobbyist or are partaking in research for the first time. Anyone can benefit from new types of learning, especially since there are many types of archives, meaning there is something of interest for everyone.
Tip #1 Do Your Research
- You don’t need to worry about knowing everything about your subject before you visit an archive, especially since you are aiming to learn more while you are there, but it is always useful to have some background before you begin diving into primary documents. Be sure to look for secondary reading materials, including books and scholarly articles on subjects related to your research. You may want to read more about the time period, people, places and events you are interested in to provide you with context before you begin to work with primary documents.
- If a document was created by an institution such as a church, you may want to look into their record-keeping systems beforehand. These institutions often have very specific record-keeping policies and practices, and may use unique and unfamiliar terminology.
- When I first began to read through Anglican Church records, I was confused by some of the terminology, and especially by their convention of using very specific abbreviations. With a bit of investigating, I was able to find guides online to help me better understand these records. If there are conventions or terms you don’t understand, it is always a good idea to look into them. If you are still unsure after some personal research, the archivist may be able to help you figure it out.
- If possible, you should go into the archives with a starting point. It’s ideal to have a sense of what documents you would like to see, but a handful of research objectives or even just a question can also function as starting points.
Tip #2 Read the Rules
- Every archive has its own rules. They may be posted on their website or kept on a poster or handout in the archive itself. Before you begin working, familiarize yourself with the rules.
- Be sure you are properly certified if the archive requires it. Some archives are only open to credentialled researchers or members of certain institutions, while many are open to all.
- Many archives will contain confidential or sensitive documents that you will not be permitted to look at. There may also be documents that require extra certification to view.
- When I visited the Church archives, I was not permitted to look at Personnel Files for clergy who had died less than 100 years ago. These files will eventually be opened, but for now, they are closed to protect the privacy of surviving family members.
- When you visit the archive, there will be rules about what can be brought in. You will likely have to wash your hands, leave food, drinks and pens outside, write with a pencil or type on a keyboard and may be asked to place your belongings in a locker.
- Always ask permission before taking photographs or photocopying documents.
- Be sure to ask about the rules for sharing documents. Just because you are permitted to view a document doesn’t mean you are permitted to share photographs of it online or use it in a publication. Always ask.
Tip #3 Spend Your Time Wisely
- Make sure you are familiar with the archive’s hours and policies before visiting.
- If possible, let the archivist know you are coming by calling ahead or sending an email. If they cannot accommodate you on the day you would like to visit, it is best to know ahead of time so you can reschedule. If the archivist knows you are coming ahead of time, they may be able to pull your desired material before you arrive, and will likely be able to ensure there is a space for you to work.
- Some archives charge a fee for access, so prioritize the most important documents in your search.
- You may not be able to visit the archive in person if it is closed to visitors or located far away. Even if you cannot visit in person, you may be able to view some or all of the collection digitally. Some archives also allow you to pay a researcher to search for you and send you digitized versions of documents.
- If you are looking at a digital collection, you may benefit from contacting the archivist. The physical archive may hold documents that have yet to be digitized or added to the online catalogue.
- If you are deciding whether or not to visit, email the archivist first. They can help you to figure out if there are relevant documents in the archive.
Tip #4 Don’t Be Afraid to Explore
- Especially if you are able to visit the archive more than once, take the time to explore interesting threads as they come up, even if they deviate from your original plan! You can often find new information in unexpected places.
- When I began my research, I had three key churches I was exploring. As I worked through the material, the names of other nearby churches began to pop up. While I was initially strict about only looking through the files pertaining to the original three churches, once I began to look at the Church History files for these other churches, I was able to find new research avenues. These files held information that was relevant to my research questions, and had I not been curious, I would have missed them.
- Ask the archivist for guidance! They know more about the contents of the archive than anyone else, and they are your best resource when looking around. If they have the time to talk, be sure to tell them your research goals and they may be able to direct you towards useful documents.
- Take down anything of interest! While it is important to record basic information such as the document’s location in the archive so you can properly cite your findings, be sure to jot down things that seem unusual or interesting. You never know where a piece of information could take you!
In my own experience, learning to use an archive was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but it quickly became exciting as I realized I had the opportunity to study fascinating local history. I started out by learning to read Parish Registers. Parish Registers are records created by ministers from various Christian denominations, which document births, baptisms, deaths and other important information related to a church’s congregation. The first Parish Records I viewed were produced over a period of several decades, from the 1840s to the 1900s. Initially, I was thrown by the strange handwriting and unfamiliar spellings, but after a few days with these records, I could distinguish each minister’s handwriting, and could decipher most of the text. I began to recognize family names, and traced generations through records of their births, marriages and deaths. I read the meeting minutes for church meetings, and saw the ways in which different individuals were involved within their communities. Even records that might not seem so interesting, such as church financial records, had interesting stories within. Listed among their expenses were building repairs from when the weather took a toll on the building, food budgets for church picnics and fellowship groups, and donations sent to outside communities experiencing financial need.
I remember spending a great deal of time on documents created by a specific minister who lived in the area beginning in the late 1830s. It was an exciting day when the archivist told me she’d found a photograph of him, and we looked at it together. Suddenly I could put a face to the name I had read countless times. Within the archive, there were troubling discoveries, amazing stories, information which expanded my project and information that had no relation at all but was interesting nonetheless. There were days dedicated to plugging in Parish Register records into my computer, and days where I was able to follow interesting threads through various boxes of documents.
Archival research is an exciting and rewarding process! In the archives, researchers are able to get just about as close to the past as is possible. We can read the handwriting of people who lived long before us, analyze early photographs, hand drawn maps and other images, and are able to learn about the world as it was decades or even centuries ago! While the large filing cabinets and boxes of documents can be intimidating, with a bit of preparation, care and help from the archivist, fear will turn to excitement at the possibilities these records hold! The best advice I can give is to always ask questions. If you are unsure of something, the archivist is your best source of help, and as you work, questions will arise from to documents themselves. Follow that curiosity, work diligently, and you will soon find that archival research is immensely rewarding. You never know what you might find!