Digging up archives for research

Digging up archives for research

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers got me thinking more about research, and in particular about how to locate archive materials.

Of course, you can always start with Google, but beyond that, you might try:

Bibliographies

Look in the bibliographies at the back of books that you are already consulting for research. Where did those authors go to get information? Even if you don’t read all the books they consulted, you can still check out what sources they used. Likewise with any essays you read. Even websites dedicated to your topic may list archives they used. Sometimes the dedications at the beginning of books also thank people who helped with research.

Experts

While I’m not suggesting you stalk big names in your field of interest, we often meet experts (and other novelists) at book readings, symposiums, conferences or casually at other events. Asking about their research and the collections they may have used is a good conversation opener, and you might just learn something. If you are interviewing them, make it one of your questions.

Libraries

Your local reference librarian is bound to be a treasure house of information, especially about local archives.

But beyond that, ask your local library about accessing the WorldCat database or Archive Grid, with close to a million listings for archival materials stored in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Many of the libraries within that network offer inter-library loans. Your library may also have access to the subscription site Archive Finder which has over 22000 listings of historical collections of primary source material in American and British archives. For American publications, the Library of Congress  is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

College and university archives
An 1864 photo from the collection

Apart from theses archiving, educational institutions often have “special collections”. University of Toronto, for instance, has a collection called “The Barren Lands: J.B. Tyrrell’s Expeditions for the Geological Survey of Canada, 1892-1894” which includes over 5,000 images from original field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, maps and published reports covering two exploratory surveys of the Barren Lands region west of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the area now known as Nunavut.

Corporate archives
1936 Parade of Progress

Large corporations often have archives, like the General Motors Heritage Centre, that preserve the history of their corporations and industries. Collections of videos, photographs, and corporate records have varying degrees of public access depending on the company’s policies and archival staff availability.

Canadian archives

Our National Archives known as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are housed in Ottawa. (read about Ruth’s research visit there). Among their collections are:

The Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), in partnership with LAC, maintains ArchivesCanada.ca which lists over 800 repositories across Canada and has links to databases by province.

Other web sites to check

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives , the record keeper of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The American Historical Association sponsors Archives Wiki which gives information on (and links to) archives around the world from a researcher’s perspective.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  looks after US Federal government materials, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

And then what????

Of course, locating the archive that holds the documents or other materials you need is only the beginning. Accessing that information and dealing with archival staff is the subject of another blog. Stay tuned.

Last Word

This twitter quote comes from this year’s author guest at Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2018 retreat in November, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpayper). And it’s so true!

The thing with research is you only know you’ve done enough research after having done way too much research.

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