‘How to’ Navigate an Archive

Our latest blog post comes from the ever fantastic and knowledgeable Jill Sullivan. Jill completed her doctoral thesis on Victorian regional pantomime in 2005, and has since published a monograph, articles and book chapters on the subject. Her most recent publication is ‘English Pantomime and the Irish Question’ in Politics, Performance and Popular Culture: Theatre and Society in Nineteenth-century Britain, edited by Peter Yeandle, Katherine Newey and Jeffrey Richards (Manchester University Press, 2016). She is currently co-authoring a book on optical entertainments in the nineteenth-century. Much of Jill’s research has been archive-based; in 2013 she decided to retrain as an archivist and now works as Archives Assistant at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, a role that enables her to support the research enquiries and searches of students and other academics. This dual relationship means she is one of the best people to talk about how to navigating an archive! – Ed.

Autumn is definitely in the air and the new research semester has started. Some of you will be at the start of your doctoral research, or starting to think about the archival research element of your work. Archival research can be exciting and rewarding; sometimes it can be frustrating, sometimes surprising and sometimes it can provide a whole new direction for your research. If you haven’t used an archive before, don’t worry – here’s a short ‘How To’ Guide to using archives…

What exactly is an archive? 

An archive contains a single or separate collections of material which may have originally belonged to individuals (an actor, writer, or designer for example), or a theatre company, such as the National Theatre or Bristol Old Vic. Because of this, materials that you are interested in researching may exist in different collections across a single archive (and in different archives!)

An archivist is responsible for the care and preservation of and providing access to those collections. The archivist is also responsible for maintaining the integrity of these collections and keeping them in their separate order; in other words collections cannot be mixed up. Unlike a library, materials are not sorted by subject matter so if different collections all have material related to the actor Sir Henry Irving, that material will not be taken out and put into a separate ‘Irving box’ – it will all be kept within the individual collections.

An archive comprises largely paper-based information. So, for theatre and performance history this may include: scripts, prompt copies, production photographs, playbills, programmes, financial records, correspondence, production notes, show reports….

University of Bristol Theatre Collection website screengrab

(Note: Some organisations, such as the V&A and the University of Bristol Theatre Collection are also accredited museums so their collections also include 3D objects, which may include set models, paintings, costumes, props, ceramics, make up, wigs.…)

How do I know which archive to use?

Find out what archives are out there that are relevant to your subject area. The APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections) has an excellent website for UK collections.

There are also University Special Collections e.g. University of Kent (Templeman Collection), Birmingham and Glasgow. And don’t forget that there are major archives in the USA including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas; Harvard Theatre Collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and the Billy Rose Archive at the New York Public Library. Some theatre companies retain their own archives, such as the National Theatre and the RSC. And Local Studies Libraries and County Record Offices often have good holdings for local theatre history.

You will need to research your research plans to find out where you need to be!

Researching the archive holdings
University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search screengrabMost archives will have an online catalogue. Remember to search these using different filters to find relevant materials. Don’t search too broadly (you might just regret putting ‘Shakespeare’ into a catalogue search!) but don’t be too narrow either – think around your subject.

Archive cataloguing systems often use literal spellings based on the way in which they were originally populated by an archivist (this isn’t Google!). You may need to try different versions of a name (e.g. Peter O’Toole, OToole or O Toole) to find relevant materials.University of Bristol Theatre Collection catalogue search results

Bear in mind that all archives will have at least some uncatalogued items and that they will have different policies regarding researcher access to uncatalogued materials – if a collection has only recently been deposited, the archivist may yet have to check it for any confidential material (we have to adhere to the Data Protection Act); and some archives don’t allow access to any uncatalogued archives.

Contacting the archive and preparing for your visit

First of all, check the organisation’s website for general information about directions, opening times, closure periods etc. – this will help you to plan your research visit.

Please don’t turn up unannounced at an archive asking to see everything on Hamlet! Plan your visit.

Also check for any required identification that you will need to take with you and publicised rules about camera/copying materials and charges.

Then, use the online catalogue to identify items you’d like to consult. Make a note of the catalogue reference numbers. Once you have identified the items you’d like to see, start an email conversation with the archivist. Tell them what you are researching and for what purpose (e.g. an article or your thesis or dissertation) and what you’d like to see in their archive. Ask them if they have any advice about other related materials that may be of use to you in their collections (in case they have uncatalogued but accessible materials). It is much easier for an archivist to help a researcher if they know what the research project is about and the sort of materials you’re looking for.

Get to know your archivist and help them to help you! Remember that they want to make the archives accessible.

Contact the archive well in advance of a planned visit – not only do you need to check for any closure periods which may affect your plans, but the archivist needs time to retrieve the requested items ready for your visit. Agree a date (and time if necessary) for your visit. And it’s a good idea to just double check on any identification required.

Having established the items you want to see, work out how much time you think you’ll need at the archive. Bear in mind that archival material can contain research surprises so allow time to explore further. And be practical – there’s no point in ordering up lots of items if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

Some archives will have a limit on the number of items retrieved per visit or during a visit – you need to know this beforehand. Many archives are huge, with hundreds of thousands of items that take time to retrieve. Be patient and work with their retrieval systems.

Working in the archive

You’re finally there, in expectation of the research treasures contained within all those files and boxes! Make sure you introduce yourself to the archivist – we like to put faces to names! You will also be asked to complete a registration form/show identification when you arrive.

Although you may have found reprographics information on the organisation’s website, you should also clarify with the archivist at this point about copying/scanning/camera use. This varies from organisation to organisation and there will probably also be different procedures depending on whether you want images purely for personal reference or whether you want to make them public (in articles, conference presentations, exhibitions, and any social media use or blogs etc.) Archives also vary in how they class the use of images in theses.

The archive does not automatically own copyright on its collections. In establishing early on what you want images for, you will be able to timetable plans for arranging copyright clearance and permissions – this will be your responsibility although the archivist may well be able to help you with information about copyright holders and who to contact. Don’t leave copyright clearance until a month before you submit your thesis or paper – it will invariably take longer than you think!

When working at the archive, be aware of in-house regulations. Standard requirements are that you use pencils only (accidental ink marks can ruin original documents) and that you wear gloves (either cotton or nitrile) for handling photographs or glass plate negatives. When making your notes, always be sure to clearly detail the catalogue number or the box or accession number if it is uncatalogued, for each item, plus the collection that it comes from. If you are unsure, ask the archivist for the correct accession or catalogue number to cite.

This is important for three reasons. Firstly, you will need these details for your own citations and bibliography – there is nothing more irritating than getting to the final proofs for your work and finding that you didn’t make a note of the reference number, and you may not have time to revisit the archive. Secondly, if you want to request the item again on a later visit or for a copy of the item for publication it will enable the archivist to find it quickly. Thirdly, remember that these citations are not only for your own reference but may also be used as a reference point for others using your thesis/papers as a starting point for their own research.

Finally, when your work is submitted or you have work published, do let the archivist know – we love to hear about our researchers’ successes!


Committee Member Kate is a bit of a fan of the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, so if you want to read some of her musings on this particular archive click here.

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