Posted by Linda Barnickel on October 20, 2015 in Family History Month, Website

Guest post by Linda Barnickel.

October is Archives Month, and archival institutions throughout the U.S. are celebrating! This is the perfect chance to take the plunge if you’ve always wanted to go to an archive, but have hesitated to do so. Many institutions plan special events including open houses, exhibits, programs, and a variety of other activities. Whether you visit a local repository or travel a long distance, here are a few guidelines for first-time visitors to archives.

National Archives, Washington D.C., Library of Congress
National Archives, Washington D.C., Library of Congress

1) Familiarize Yourself with Policies

It is wise to spend some time at the website for the archives you plan to visit. Most institutions will post their policies and procedures, and it is worth your time to read through these documents in advance. Doing so will help you be better prepared, know what to expect, and save time during your visit.

2) Travel Light

A corollary to item #1 is to travel light. Most archival institutions have guidelines about what kinds of things researchers can bring with them. Big bags, briefcases, purses and coats are almost always prohibited in the reading room, though lockers are often provided for their secure storage nearby. File cases of any type, such as those made out of hard plastic or on wheels, may be prohibited entirely. Some institutions may limit your personal reference materials by format or quantity. Even note-taking materials are limited – pencils are acceptable, while pens are not.

3) Plan Extra Time

Archival institutions are different places than libraries, and researchers at any level of experience will find that research in archives simply takes more time. Allow yourself plenty of time to go through the registration process, secure your personal items, and learn the procedures necessary to request an item from the archives. Take a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the reading room, and to learn more about the catalog and other access tools, such as finding aids.

Even the process of examining archival materials during your research can be time consuming. You may have to examine the contents of an overstuffed folder page-by-page, or the documents may be extremely fragile, requiring a slow and delicate hand to turn them over without damage. It may be necessary to read slowly, in an effort to decipher faded handwriting or ornate script. Any number of circumstances may make for slow going, so plan accordingly.

4) Archives Are About Context

Archives, unlike libraries, do not arrange their materials by subject or Dewey Decimal number. Instead, documents and other materials are kept together as a unit, based upon the circumstances of their creation. In archivists’ lingo, this concept is known as provenance. Provenance essentially boils down to, “Who created these records and why, and what actions do they document?”

Another key concept relating to archives is “original order.” This means that however the records’ creator chose to organize those records, that organizational scheme will remain intact once those records come to an archive. That’s why sometimes you may encounter records that are organized in ways that may not be conducive to genealogical research – but were organized by a method that was perfectly appropriate and efficient given the original purpose of the records at the time of their creation.

Both provenance and original order are about context. Archivists believe that knowing how and why records were created, and maintaining the original order of records when they were actively being used, provides context that otherwise would be simply lost. This context, then, is important for any researcher to be aware of, and use to their advantage.

Future posts in this series will cover some of these subjects in greater detail. This post is only a quick introduction. Meanwhile, search the internet to see what activities in your community might be going on relating to Archives Month. Commit to visiting a local repository, if only to explore.

Linda Barnickel

Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book,Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at lindabarnickel.com.

3 Comments

  1. Kathy

    Enjoyed your post. I appreciated especially your mentioning provenance and original order. A good reminder that an archive is just that–not a fast food drive-thru! Although as I learn to know what I want to order, it becomes easier to ask for it:)
    Thank you!

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