Search the Archives

It appears that in many cases, worthy research work cannot go without an investigation in archives, in some form or another. It’s tedious work, not always pleasant or rewarding, and in some cases one may come away from the expedition washed out, but no more informed. However, if your research topic includes archival material (and mine does), it’s essential to delve into it, at least once, just in case something might have escaped us.

The term “archives” is generally used when referring to old documents. These documents are stored and classified for conservation or historical purposes (often both). These types of documents are not always officially referred to as “archives” by those who manage them, or by those who are the source of the documents. However, when a document that was useful in the past, is no longer useful today because it has lost its relevance, and is preserved, then this document is a form of archive (at least in the context that interests us here).

The main difficulty in digging through archives is that it can be anything and everything. In the social sciences and humanities (SSH), one can find manuscripts, journals, memos, activity reports, but also flyers or leaflets. But some documents are not necessarily text, they can be visual, even graphic, such as event posters, maps, advertisements, or tickets. Others may simply not be palpable. These are videos (official or amateur), podcasts, recorded radio transmissions, etc. The list is endless. Of course, all this can also be found in its digital equivalent (online or offline), especially when it comes to recent documents. In the case of my thesis specifically, especially in cases where there are few archives in quantity, I prefer to err on the side of caution and not pre-sort what I’m going to look at without knowing what’s in it beforehand. All types of documents have their advantages and defects. Their selection must depend above all on your subject and your problem. Which documents can you use to highlight what you want to talk about?

© Marjan Blan

The very first phase of an archive excavation is the collection phase. It’s by far the most tedious, although it’s not the longest. Finding archival data can be done in several ways depending on what you are looking for. The ideal case is when you are interested in what is called “public archives”. In other words, the state archives. Since they are official items, these types of documents often surprise you with valuable information. However, beware of the legal side of things. In France, for example, public archives can be used after a certain period of time, which is governed by a law contained in the Code of Relations between the Public and the Administration, in article L 321-1. However, this law no longer applies when it concerns documents that may contain someone’s personal data or if the document is rather intellectual property of someone. Keep in mind that each country has its own rules and laws concerning its public archives. It would be a matter of not breaking the law somewhere, even in the opposite side of the world…

The other major source of documents is obviously private sources. This documents are more difficult to obtain, so one must search longer, especially when it comes to documents that are not required to be published. In spite of this, private archives have the advantage that they can be used at the owner’s discretion. That is to say that if he likes you, or if he doesn’t care at all (which happens more often than you might think), you can use the documents he entrusts to you in your research. But beware, this is a matter of private law, it’s always preferable to have your back by asking him for a written record of his agreement.

This is just a piece of advice, but I recommend that you keep a complete and well-informed list of all the archives you consult from the start. I personally indicate the provenance or source, the date of creation of the document, the date of availability sometimes, a maximum description of the document and my own notes concerning it, as well as of course, a basic characterization (title or name, etc.). I treat this list almost as preciously as the few paragraphs I have already written of my thesis or my bibliography (copy on my computer, on my external hard disk, on two different USB keys, etc.). If I were to lose this work, duly classified and analyzed, it would be me who would be lost!

© Ula Kuzma

Archive work undoubtedly allows for direct immersion, especially if your theme includes one-time events that are now over. The historical aspect is another undeniable advantage of archives. They are a time machine, literally. Rereading an old newspaper is exactly like going back in time, you can feel the atmosphere, the concerns and sometimes even the feelings of those who wrote it. In the social sciences and humanities, this is an element that I consider not to be neglected, in order to better grasp the ideas and concepts of people at a given moment in time.

The contribution of documents gives the research work a kind of scientific support, as it’s a reliable source element, often attested and sometimes accessible (and therefore verifiable) by everyone freely. Finally, what I call archive excavation or archive search is first of all a compilation work. Even in so-called “abstract” subjects, because certain elements can help to conceptualize and even make more concrete some aspects of the research. Then, it’s a work of analysis, which I’m sure you know how to do perfectly well. It’s this analytical work, which will be your biggest effort, that will give full prominence to the documents that have caught your attention, so that you can bring out your working hypotheses.

Finally, you will then have to exploit the data within the thesis, but how? After several half-days of pain, I finally realized that the solution is often contained in the documents themselves. Sometimes it will be photographs in the appendices, or complete transcripts when justified. But it can also, in the case of text documents, be a quotation within the text of your work if this is possible and sufficient. The important thing is to link your document to the rest of the thesis especially! It’s not a question of talking about a document in order to talk about it, it must bring something to your problem and to your demonstration. Otherwise, it’s archiving, not a thesis friends!


Good luck in your research & see you soon!


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