What is an archive?
An archive is a collection of historical records or documents. These can range from personal to public material, and they can be in any kind of format:
- Audio (sound recordings)
- Audiovisual (film)
Archives often contain unique documents, and use their own cataloguing systems. All these factors make archival work challenging, and call for considerable advance preparation.
Official records are generally more accessible than independent and personal archives. They also have longer opening times, clearer regulations and are better equipped. You may still stumble on bureaucratic obstacles that slow you down, so prepare yourself in advance:
- What do you need to bring with you?
- Do you need a reader’s ticket?
- How long will it take to get materials?
Contact the archive in advance or check their website to confirm this information. Have a look at Inside the archive or, for a handy checklist of things to consider, consult the National Archive website.
If you’re consulting audiovisual holdings, try to get an idea of the content of the material and its condition beforehand. Does the archive have the facilities for you to listen/view? With older analogue recordings, there is always the risk of deterioration. Check that the files are not out for repair and unavailable.
Have the material put aside for you, and schedule plenty of time for your visit. Think about how you will transcribe the recordings – this can be a time consuming exercise! It’s often possible to ‘buy’ the material and have it sent to you as a digital file or on a CD, but this is generally very expensive.
Handwritten papers, letters and other private records can be a fascinating window into the past, but they involve a lot of preparation, time and patience.
- It’s best if you know exactly what you are looking for, and where you may expect to find it. If you don’t, be prepared to spend hours scanning through material.
- Personal papers record daily life experiences and feelings. Think about the methodological issues that arise from this kind of source.
- Be aware of the ethics of digging into private lives, and the copyright concerns. Read our guide on copyright and primary sources!
Grassroots archives are often collections gathered by activists, and can provide a wealth of information about suppressed issues. Unique material such as campaign posters, flyers and underground publications is often found in such archives.
Independent collections present their own set of problems:
- They are often disorganised. They may lack a rigorous cataloguing system, which makes you dependent upon the memory of the archivists.
- They are usually run by volunteers, who may not be as efficient as a professional archivist!
- They might not be as visible or accessible to the public as institutional archives. You may need to build a relationship before being granted access.
- Since these archives don’t have clear regulations, ask about any copyright issues.
- Consider any ethical issues that arise (if, for example the material contains information about illegal activities).
The University of Warwick’s Modern Records Centre (MRC) is a national archive of unique documents for the study of industrial relations, industrial politics and labour history. These include:
- records of trade unions
- motor industry records
- records of radical protest movements and pressure groups concerned with social reform in Britain
In addition, the MRC holds all PhD theses that have been successfully submitted to the University.
When visiting the MRC:
- Make an appointment (even if you’re only consulting a thesis) so that the material can be prepared for you in advance.
- Check conditions of access. These vary according to specific collections.
- Check copyright status. You may need to sign a declaration form if you want to copy certain material.
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Andrea Hajek received her doctorate in Italian with a dissertation on the public memory of an Italian student movement of the late 1970s. She is the senior editorial assistant for the Sage journal of Memory Studies.
About the author...
Andrea Hajek received her doctorate in Italian with a dissertation on the public memory of an Italian student movement of the late 1970s. She is the senior editorial assistant for the Sage journal of Memory Studies. More…