Welcome back! In this installment of ‘Unlocking the Archives’, we’ll discuss planning your visit to an archives in a way that will make the most of your experience and best use of your time, whether you are traveling a long distance or visiting locally If you haven’t visited an archival institution, consider doing so. It may just contain that one piece of information you need to help complete the research puzzle.
Here are some options that should be considered when visiting an archives near or far:
- Visiting Hours
Visiting hours at archives will vary. Large institutions may have extensive hours, but many small ones may have limited hours. Some may only be open for several hours a day, two days a week. Make sure your visit does not coincide with any holidays, as most institutions will likely be closed. If an institution has evening and weekend hours, staff may be at a minimum during these periods, limiting some of the services available. For example, the Virginia Room is closed on Mondays, so it is important to check operating hours in advance.
Before your visit, check the archives’ holdings. What do they have that you are interesting in seeing? Visit their website and familiarize yourself with the collection. Does the institution focus primarily on local history, genealogy or both? Are any indexes or finding aids available online? Read through them and note items that may be of interest for your visit. Is there an online collection of material available? Many institutions have a webpage and some will provide more information on their holdings than others. If you can’t locate the type of materials an institution collects, give them a call or send an email and inquire.
- Policies and Procedures
Now that you have located an archives to visit, familiarize yourself with their policies and procedures. This may seem like something that can wait until you arrive, but it’s wise to have a general idea of the ‘dos and don’ts’ before you arrive. Imagine that you have traveled to an archives (located in a large city), paid to park, toted all of your research materials (including your laptop) inside only to find that none of these items are permitted. This is not uncommon in large institutions like the National Archives. Some institutions have very strict policies and procedures and others are more lenient. While bags of any kind are not permitted in the Virginia Room, research materials, laptops and digital cameras are welcome. You may also want to be aware of any associated fees, such as those for photocopies and computer prints and whether use of cash or credit/debit cards is preferred.
- Notify Staff
This is particularly important if you are traveling out of town, visiting an institution for the first time, and/or if the institution is large. Speaking with staff about your upcoming visit, either by phone or email will enable them to have some materials awaiting your arrival, maximizing your research time, rather than waiting to have materials pulled for you. Some large institutions require that materials are requested in advance; since certain items may be stored off-site and could take hours or even days to retrieve. You’ll want to avoid visiting a large institution to use a particular collection only to find it unavailable because it is stored off-site.
You have planned your trip, know what to expect and what is expected, but there is one more way to prepare. Consider setting a reasonable agenda for your visit. Jot down no more than five specific questions that you hope to answer during your visit. Prioritize them in a way that will enable you to make the best use of your time; for instance, if you know you need the answer to one of your queries to be able to answer another, give this question the priority. It may also be helpful to prioritize questions by the type of materials needed to answer them. Are records available in books or only on microfilm or some other format, which may take more time to search? Focus on each priority on your list one at a time. Plan a reasonable amount of time for your visit and be sure to allot extra time for unexpected discoveries! Since the research process can take a great deal of time (even years or decades), you should not necessarily expect to answer all of your questions in one visit. If you can only answer two or three of the questions, consider your visit a success!