Advice for students conducting their first archival research project.
Archives can provide a rich and valuable resource for geographical research. If you're considering an archive-based research project for the first time, this resource provides some advice and things to think about.
An archive is a collection of materials brought together for a purpose. These may:
Document an event or activity
Relate to an organisation or an individual
Or have other purposes too. For instance, the Society's Collections include unpublished manuscript and typescript paper material, documenting the activities of the organisation, or belonging to key figures in the history of geography and exploration.
But archives can also look very different, encompassing
Many different types of material, including images, ephemera, sound, and video, as well as textual material
Many different locations
Other material formats
Institutions create archives for a variety of reasons, but generally speaking items are kept because they were important to someone for purposes including:
It is vital to remember that archives are not neutral spaces, but are shaped by power relations and the perspectives of people who created them.
Many archives have been digitised and so can be accessible online. However, sometimes these sit behind a paywall, or there may be other barriers to access (such as digital literacy and ability to navigate them). You can find out more about a recent project to digitise the Society's Collections in partnership with Wiley Digital Archives, in our resource on Using the RGS-IBG Wiley Digital Archives.
There are a number of online search engines that will help you find relevant archival materials.
The National Archives: Discovery
JISC Library Discovery hub
Both of these platforms allow you to search by the archives held in many UK national, academic and specialist libraries.
Specific institutions, for example, often also have search functions. For example, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) have an online catalogue where you can search their collections.
What do I want to know?
What is here? What am I looking at?
Who put it together? And who decided to keep this?
Why? For what purposes?
What were their priorities?
What is missing?
Many archives require some form of identification and a proof of address in order to access their materials. For instance, new readers who wish to access the Society's Collections need to bring their photo driving licence or passport. Different archives may have different rules. Make sure you check what sort of identification you need to bring with you before you head to an archive. Information is usually available on the archive’s website, or you can email in advance if you are not sure.
Most archives also restrict what you can bring into them. For instance, food and water are often not allowed, nor are pens or loose sheets of papers. Again, make sure you check in advance what you can and can’t bring with you.
It can also be helpful to have a list of items you want to look at ready. This will save time when you get there and allow you to use your time most effectively. For many archives, you will need to order material in advance of your visit, so that it is waiting for you when you arrive.
Many archives have restriction on photography. This is often due to copyright restrictions on the material in them. Some don’t allow photos at all, while others allow it but require you to fill in a form explaining which items you’ve photographed or pay a small photography fee. Make sure you check the specific regulations before you visit.
Archives come in all shapes and sizes, so what to expect can vary a great deal. Bigger archives like the National Archives can seat hundreds of people and have many members of staff. Other archives are much smaller, sometimes with only one or two archivists. Either way, archivists often know a great deal about the collections and it’s often worth explaining your research project to them, as they might be able to direct you towards relevant collections that you otherwise didn’t know about.
It’s important to handle archival materials carefully. Different archives will have slightly different rules or guidelines about how to handle their materials. As a rule, making sure you have clean hands is important, as is patience when handling delicate materials. You may be required to wear gloves when handling photographs or artefacts. It’s always a good idea to check with the archivist if you’re unsure about how to handle a specific object or collection.
Working systemically is vital when studying larger collections. It can be really helpful to understand how a given collection is orders: is it by date? Or is it alphabetic? Understanding how a collection is organised can help you think about the best way to tackle it. How you do so will also depend on the kind of research questions you’re asking. Either way, it’s good to develop a system or strategy for examining a collection.
If you’re planning a long research project, it’s really helpful to keep a record of the documents you’ve looked at, even if they didn’t prove useful. This is particularly important if you’re doing a longer research project, where you might forget what you looked at on earlier on. This is also important for when you later write up your list of references or bibliography, so keep as more detail as you.
Have you worked with the Society's Collections? Do you have an interesting story to tell about what you’ve found? Contact us at email@example.com to let us know and find out more about how we share details of the fascinating research on our Collections.
Featured image: Rawpixel
The Council of Heads of Geography in UK Higher Education Institutions' (CHGHEI) principles for planning and delivering undergraduate fieldwork, guided by evidence and good practice.
A collection of teaching resources on the environment and sustainability.
A list of UK geography scholarship opportunities for BME candidates.
Resources and key readings to support the consideration of ethical issues in location data and GIS.
By placing a booking, you are permitting us to store and use your (and any other attendees) details in order to fulfil the booking.
We will not use your details for marketing purposes without your explicit consent.
You must be a member holding a valid Society membership to view the content you are trying to access. Please login to continue.
Join us today, Society membership is open to anyone with a passion for geography
Cookies on the RGS website