The Basics: Essential Archival Research Kit

by Anna Blanch on June 23, 2010

Another post in The Basics series – this time providing advice for what to take with you into the archives or research library.

The Essential Kit

  • Readers card
  • Laptop (and chargers/power cord)
  • A pad of paper or research notebook
  • Endnote
  • Pencils, eraser, sharpener
  • Outline of research
  • Business cards
  • Change for lockers, photocopying (though you may need to carry a Plastic form of currency for that, if you’re anything like me), and 
  • Clear plastic bags X 2 (1 large and 1 small)  
  • Sweater or cardigan
  • First aid: (a small strip of acetaminophen/paracetamol, a couple of band aids, cough drops, tissues)

My days in a Research or Archival libraries are usually 10-6:30pm but I try to adjust for the season and the rhythms of the host city. I usually work from 10- 6:30pm because usually means I miss peak hour if I’m in a city. This can make travel significantly more comfortable (and sometimes cheaper too). It also means I can write in the mornings where I’m staying and have my brain ready to work by the time i’ve arrived at the library.

So let’s talk about why I think the above items fall into the essential category :
1. Readers Card – see my post on Basics: Using Reference and Archival Libraries for more details on getting a Readers Card painlessly.
2. Laptop – this is self explanatory. Make sure you remember the AC adaptor. double-check (i have a tendency to mindless leave it or the travel adaptor in the wall in my office/home.
3. Notepad or book – I use a plain black unlined moleskin.I have also used yellow legal pads in the past but i find a smaller book or notepad is more convenient.
4. Information Management Software – Endnote, Bibtex, Scrivener: whatever you do, just make sure you have a bibliographic information management system, whether that’s software of index cards. Don’t rely on your memory – it’ll just frustrate you. Organise your system as early as possible in your research.
5. Writing instruments – make sure you have enough pencils for the reading room – most will not let you take pens in and though you might already know this make sure you have enough pencils (and sharpener etc) to go the distance.
6. Business Cards- if you cannot get these from your department, then try Vistaprint – they are very inexpensive but look professional! These can also be used for conferences.
7. Change – for lockers, photocopying (though you may need to carry a Plastic form of currency for that, if you’re anything like me). The Basic article also has more information about this and the varying costs.
8. Clear plastic bags X 2 (1 large and 1 small) – Many libraries want you to use a completely transparent plastic bag for your laptop and other materials. I have one from the British library (free) and Cambridge University libraries (which i paid 20p – 50p for) which I use everywhere. They are sturdier than normal plastic bags. I also put my pencils etc in a clear Ziploc bag which kept them all together and stops them scratching the top of my laptop.
9. Sweater or Cardigan – Although it might seem odd that I am giving advice on what to wear, I find that my physical comfort directly correlates to how productive I am in a research library context. So, Wear Layers! Most places will make you cloak coats, but a cardigan will help keep you warm if the air con is set too low. Scarves are also awesome – they fall outside the jacket rule, and they can keep you very warm. If you have a tendency to get either cold or hot, wearing layers especially important!
10. First aid – (a small strip of acetaminophen/paracetamol, a couple of band aids, cough drops, tissues). Many good research days have been ruined by pesky headaches, a bad paper cut (they sting) or a persistent cough. If you are occasionally prone to allergies or hay fever throw a short strip of whatever you take to alleviate that too!

Other Preparations
Readers Card: If you can book an appointment beforehand – do it!. Read the Basics post and make sure you have all documentation you need to get the card on arrival.

Pre Search the Catalogue: As I mentioned in The Basics: using Archival and Research Libraries, it is important to know what you are getting yourself in for and to pre-order from the catalogue so you can maximise the amount you can get through while on site.

Know your (Copy)Rights!: Know your rights and responsibilities under copyright law. Not all staff, even at the best libraries in the world (ie: British Library) know fair use guidelines inside and out. Even where an author’s work is out of copyright (meaning you can copy it totally) preservation guidelines may dictate you are only permitted to copy 1/3 of a book. If you only need marginally more than this, smile and negotiate politely towards what you need. Be aware that preservation guidelines are then for the protection of the books and material and don’t be hard on the library staff if they cannot accede to what you want.

Take Time to Smell The Roses: Do some research to see what else is going on in the city where you’ll be. Visit the special exhibitions on in the library at the time, drink a beverage of choice at the end of the day, take breaks periodically to break up the day.

Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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  • Raquelita

    For some reason I haven't been able to post on your blog on Firefox, but Safari seems to be letting me. I wanted to tell you a while back that your niece is adorable!

    This is a great post! I would also suggest that some archives have a dress code (like the Vatican) and many (esp. in Latin America) require you to wear gloves and a mask in order to handle documents. Also many archives will not allow you to bring in a notebook unless it is very small – some won't let you bring in one at all.

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