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Using Archives In Your Research: Visiting Archives

Arranging to visit an archive

You have used online catalogues and found a collection that you think will really help your research. The next thing to do is to email or telephone the archive in advance of your visit and have a good look at their website. Consider asking some of the following questions:

  • Explain which collections you are interested in viewing.
  • Have the reference codes for the material to hand and ask the archivist to advise you on how much material you are asking for – will you be able to look at it in one visit or should you plan multiple trips?
  • Find out about their opening hours and if an appointment is required.
  • Ask if there are any special requirements to access the archive – will you need a letter of introduction? Should you bring identification or proof of address?
  • If you want to use a laptop do they have power points available?
  • What are their rules about reprographics (photocopying and photography)?
  • Where are they located? Is it accessible by public transport?
  • Are there cafes nearby where you can get lunch or a visitor break room where you could eat?

REMEMBER: most archives prefer visitors to make an appointment in advance!

What do I do with these old documents?

Document handling guidelines:

  • Make sure your hands are clean. Some archives will require you to wear gloves for specific items, which they will provide.
  • Open one file at a time and look through it before opening another. This stops papers becoming mixed up. It can be very difficult to put things back into the correct place if they get confused.
  • Turn the pages of the document one by one into the folder, keeping them in order.
  • If you are taking notes by hand, use pencil. Don’t be offended if you are using a mechanical pencil and the archivist double checks that it is not a pen. Imagine if you dropped a biro onto a document from 1459 and got a bright blue smear all down it!
  • Have the folder placed to one side of your notebook or laptop. Don’t lean on the document to make notes as the pressure of your writing may mark the page or you may tear it as you move.
  • Archives usually have equipment available to make viewing easier, such as book rests and lead weights to hold pages open. Feel free to use these.
  • If you want to mark a page, don’t leave a pencil in the volume or stick a post-it on the paper. Ask the archivist if they have a particular procedure – some places might have scrap paper cut into strips which you can use.

Reading and interpreting

  • Preparation is key. Background research using secondary sources will allow you to understand the names, dates, places and events referred to in documents, or the circumstances in which they were created. This information will assist you in understanding what you are looking at.
  • You should know from the catalogues and your primary contact with the archive roughly what to expect from the document – it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it is in Latin or Old English and written in handwriting that is very different to our own!
  • Even eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century handwritten documents can be difficult to decipher – be patient and ask the archivist for assistance if needed.
  • Remember that a lot of documents contain clues that help you to interpret them. For example, legal documents usually follow specific formats or use standard phrases. There are books and online guides which explain what to look for in different documents (see links and resources).

Taking notes

  • Good notes are very important. It may not be as easy to revisit an archive collection as it is to grab a book to check a quote.
  • Make sure you make a note of the reference number of each item that you consult.
  • It might also be useful to note peripheral information about a document, especially if you are going to quote from it. For example, if you find a useful sentence in a letter, make sure you note who sent it, who received it, where they sent it from and the date.
  • Sometimes it is useful to transcribe a document – that is, copy it down word for word. At other times you will want to make a summary of the information.

REMEMBER: archives research rewards patience and determination! You are a detective piecing together a puzzle.

Why can’t I access the document I want?

Sometimes you might be told that you cannot access a particular document. Access restrictions are usually noted on the catalogue. They are another reason it is a good idea to contact the archives in advance and double check that the collections you want to view are available.

Possible reasons for access restrictions:

  • The item is in poor condition and handling it will damage it further.
  • The material is closed for data protection reasons – it contains personal information which cannot be shared with a third party. This might apply for many years – for example, an archivist cataloguing a medical register from 1942 might close it until 2024. This date is arrived at by assuming that if the youngest person in the register is 16 and they might live to be 100 they will not die until this date.
  • Some people put restrictions on material that they donate to an archive, for example if it contains potentially sensitive information.
  • Many archives digitise material which is in constant demand to protect it from wear and tear – for example parish registers might be put on microfilm. You will be required to use the surrogate version to access the information.

Ask the archivist for advice in overcoming restrictions – for example, if you wanted to access the medical register entry for someone you knew was dead, you could provide proof such as an obituary. If an item is too fragile to handle you could ask the archivist to make you a surrogate copy to look at instead.

What to expect when you visit

The precise rules and regulations of an archive reading room vary from place to place, but most archives follow similar procedures. When you arrive at the archive for your appointment you should expect:

  • To have to complete a reader registration form, possibly showing ID and proof of address
  • To have to place your coat and bags in lockers and carry your notes, laptop and so on into the reading room or put them in a clear plastic bag
  • To have to complete document order slips to request material
  • To have to sign for documents as they are handed to you to confirm that the documents are now in your care
  • To be asked to read guidelines about handling the documents, or to have these guidelines explained by the archivist
  • To be asked to take specific care of one particular item, e.g. you might be asked to use a book rest for a fragile volume or a plan table for a large map
  • To have to complete a copyright form or buy a camera pass (see below for more on copying)

REMEMBER: some rules and procedures seem over fussy. They aren’t meant to make your life hard but are designed to protect the archives


If you have a short amount of time to look at a lot of material, it seems sensible to skim through for useful bits and then photocopy them for proper study later, doesn’t it? Don’t rely on this approach. Some things to note:

  • Carrying out reproduction, whether by photocopying, scanning or photography, will require you to consent to abide by copyright rules. You will likely be asked to sign a form. Most archives require that you are using the copies for private research purposes only.
  • Photocopying will depend on the condition of the document. A single sheet from a loose report might be suitable for copying, but that same page in a tightly bound report could not be copied without damaging the spine.
  • Most archives will not allow you to photocopy the documents yourself. Instead you will be asked to fill in a photocopying request form and an archivist will do it for you. This is not always possible on the day, especially for a large order, and you may have to wait for your copies to arrive in the post.
  • There is usually a charge for the reprographics service. This could be anything from £0.05 for a black and white page of A4 to considerably more.
  • Some material, especially photographs, is better scanned and provided to you digitally. Or perhaps you would like a good quality scan to use as an illustration. Again the archivist will do the work and supply you with the scan. Note that for reasons of copyright, if you want to use the scan for a publication you may be required to complete a request form or send a request in writing.
  • You might want to photograph the material yourself. Many archives will charge a flat fee for a camera pass, such as £5 per visit.
  • Think about how you will understand your photographs when you get home and begin looking at them. It can be useful to write the reference code on a slip of paper and put it on the document so that each photograph is identified. Never write on the document!
  • Bear in mind that sometimes it is more expensive, time consuming and fussy to photograph documents and read them later than just to read them and take notes


This volume cannot be photocopied, as to copy all the information in the bend of the page you would have to press down the volume, breaking the spine and damaging the item

I found useful information - now what?

Great – you have gone home with some interesting notes. But how do you use them in your study?

  • You can use the archival evidence to support your conclusions based on secondary sources. For example, your reading might have shown that historians believe that the Gimson family played an important role in early twentieth century Leicester. You can back up this assertion using evidence found in primary sources such as letters, newspaper reports and committee minutes from the time.
  • If you are looking into a topic which is not well covered in the secondary sources, then it is up to you to put together the evidence you have gathered to tell a story, create an argument and explain what happened and why. For example, if your research topic was ‘The role of the Gimson family in 19th century Leicester politics has been underestimated’, then you must use the evidence you found in primary sources to demonstrate why this is the case and tell the story of the Gimson’s role in Leicester.

Citing your sources correctly is very important. Citations must allow your readers to be able to find the specific document that you used. Different archives may have specific requirements for citation – The National Archives, for example, has a whole webpage explaining their rules. You will also have citation rules suggested by your course leaders. As a rule of thumb, include the name of the archive and the catalogue reference number. For example, “De Montfort University Archives, D/050/03/005” or “De Montfort University Archives, D/033 Folder 2”.