Equipping Myself for a Day in the Archives

Equipment I take into the archive

My archive kit.

Many people engage in historical research – family historians, local historians, authors, academic historians etc.  For all of us, the opportunities for visiting an archive can be fleeting and the cost in terms of time, travel, accommodation etc can be high.  Thorough preparation for a trip to the archives is the foundation for a fruitful day fossicking through historical records.

The photograph above shows the equipment I typically take with me into the archive.  This equipment helps me to abide by my ‘archival principles’:

  1. Save time;
  2. Minimise cost;
  3. Maximise quality and quantity of work;
  4. Backup, Backup, Backup!

I have numbered each item on the photo – below I explain why I carry each piece of equipment.

  1. Laptop: I need the computer to consult the catalogue throughout the day and to take notes.  Most archives make computers available for this purpose but that generally requires the researcher to move to another desk with all their bits and pieces and them move back again – a nuisance and a time-waster.
  2. Laptop Power Cord: I always take the power cord for my laptop with me.  My laptop contains a spreadsheet which is the hub of my research.  Lack of access due to low batteries during the day could result in me having to work an extra day in the archives to make amends.
  3. Mouse: I don’t always take a mouse with me but if I am spending a long day away from home I will take the mouse because it is easier to use than the touchpad on the laptop.
  4. Camera: Most archives that I visit allow people to take photos of documents.  In fact they prefer this to photocopies as there is less handling of the document.  They also provide scanning facilities, but at a cost.  Taking free photos is definitely the way to go.  Generally archives have a policy of no flash photography being allowed.  Camera flashes would disturb other patrons so I think this is fair.  Therefore it is important to select a desk in the archives with a good source of light and to hold the camera still.
  5. Spare Batteries: Due to my reliance on the camera I take spare batteries with me and if it is going to be a really long day, I will also take my battery recharger.  If camera batteries fail a lot of time is wasted by having to pack up all the equipment, leave the archive, go to a shop, buy the batteries, go back to the archives and set up again.  If the archive is a long way from shops alternative strategies have to be employed such as using the archive’s photocopying and scanning facilities.  If the archive does not have photocopying or scanning facilities, it might mean having to type the whole document into the laptop, summarising it or missing out on the document entirely – none of these alternatives are very palatable.
  6. Camera Download Cord: Low-light photography on a cheap camera can be a hit and miss affair at times.  During the day I regularly download the photos I have taken onto my computer and check that they are legible.  It is better to discover the dud photos and take another photo on the day than discover them later at home and spend another day at the archives rectifying the mistakes.
  7. Notepad: Backup, Backup, Backup!  I have already mentioned two storage devices for my work – the laptop and the camera.  If all else fails there is nothing like having a piece of paper to write on.  I have also found it handy when I have met other researchers in the archive and we want to exchange personal details, sources etc.
  8. Pencil: Archivists shudder at the thought of researchers using pens while working with original documents.  Many provide pencils, but I am particular about the stationery I use – it has to feel right and write well.
  9. Library/Photocopy Cards: I now have so many library and photocopy cards I have a wallet just for them.  The problem with storing them in a separate wallet is they tend to get left in the last bag I used.  Note to self – remember the library cards!
  10. Cotton gloves: If researchers are required to wear gloves when handling original documents the archives generally provide them.  However, it is one-size fits all.  I reckon it is one size fits no-one.  Earlier this year I was handed a pair of gloves that I am sure in another life were an astronaut’s gloves – they were huge.  I reckon that I had greater potential for damaging documents using those ungainly things than if I had used my bare hands, so I added well-fitting gloves to my kit.  The fact that I had my own gloves helped to establish my credentials as a serious researcher in the eyes of an archivist at the next archive I visited.  Look the part and take the gloves!
  11. USB Drive: Backup, Backup, Backup!  During the day I save all my photos and laptop files that I am using onto my USB drive, thus I have all my research saved on two and sometimes three devices.
  12. Glasses: I used to carry around a magnifying glass for reading difficult handwriting, then I discovered these glorified magnifying glasses sold by pharmacists.  It is so much more convenient using these  because it leaves my hands free for other things.

But there is more…  A researcher has to look after their physical comfort during the day.  The work is hard enough as it is, but if I am feeling physically uncomfortable then I might have to finish the day prematurely.  Firstly I make sure that I pack a good lunch, snacks and water. Of course no archives allow this in the same room as their documents – food and water  has to be stored in lockers provided.

Generally I find that the food outlets provided by the larger archives such as the state archives or state libraries are very expensive.  So in the interests of saving money I try to bring all sustenance that I require for the day.  Other archives do not sell food and quite often there is a considerable walk to the nearest food outlet.  Aside from saving money, it is important to save time so I find it is much better to find a seat just outside the archive and eat my own food quickly.

The other important aspect of physical comfort is clothing.  During the summer archives are generally colder than outside so it is good to remember a jacket.

Unfortunately I tend to forget one item each trip so I have constructed this list in order that I can check it before each trip to the archives.   I thought you may also find it useful.

What is on your list of things to remember to take on a visit to the archives?


  • Cliotropic has given some good advice about equipment to take into the archives.

4 thoughts on “Equipping Myself for a Day in the Archives

  1. Your mention of snacks and water is a great point. I find that at archives with relatively short service hours, it takes too much time to leave the building for affordable food. For archives with, say, 10am-4pm service hours, I’ve been known to subsist on energy bars. (The best snack time is after I’ve filed a call slip and before the archivist returns with the documents.)

    Thanks for the link.


  2. Pingback: batch renaming archive photos | parezco y digo

  3. Pingback: batch renaming archive photos « parezco y digo

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