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Foreign Archives: how to plan your visit?

by Florence Largillière

Archives seem to feature prominently in our blog, but this is not without reason. Talking about archives and how historians deal with them is useful on two main levels. We hope to give some guidelines to new research students – as obvious as some of them may be. And we want to show that the work of a historian is more diverse and complicated than what is sometimes imagined. Before we sit at a desk and immerse ourselves for days in old papers, notes, letters, microfilms, photographs or videos, we spend hours looking for them.

The goal of this short article is to give some advice on what to do before visiting a (foreign) Archive. Do not hesitate to comment, and we will complete this post with your ideas and tricks!

When you visit an Archive in a foreign country, remember that your knowledge of the language may not suffice to be clearly understood, and that the people you will work with may not be fluent in English[1]. Consequently, you need to know as much as possible what you will be able to find in the Archive(s) and what you will have to ask once on site.

1st: Search the Archives’ websites from top to bottom. This is time consuming. There will probably be more than one website to look at[2]. National and regional archives often have online inventories detailed enough to help you list the material you will need, but there are always chances that part of the material is not yet catalogued online, and it may not be catalogued at all. Another difficulty worth remembering is that the keywords you use may not be those used by the archivist in charge of the digital catalogue.

2nd: Identify the collections, boxes, and folders used by other historians in your field. Footnotes should never be underestimated.

3rd: Contact the archivist(s) – preferably when you already have a first list of documents and records you want to consult. Mind the country’s norms for correspondence: standard forms of address differ. To give just one example, where a “Dear” is enough in Great Britain, an “Egregio” (excellent, eminent) will be needed in Italian.
Among the questions you may want to ask: how much of the existing catalogue can be consulted online? Is it possible to take photographs?

4th: Work on your “practical” language skills. No need to be bilingual, but it may be a good idea to prepare a vocabulary list in advance, and maybe some sentences – to present your research topic, or ask precise questions. It definitely helped me feel more at ease during my first days at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS) two years ago.

5th: Take your time on site. Every Archive is organised differently, and you will probably need at least half a day to register and figure out how the catalogue and request systems work. Some inventories and databases are only accessible on site, and it takes time to familiarise yourself with them and to find information. There can also be limitations on the number of requests you can make each day, or on the number of units you can ask for. To give another Italian example, at the ACS researchers cannot request more than six units per day, and there are only two rounds of distribution (one at 9:40am and one at 12:20pm). To avoid “losing” time, take advantage of the other available resources – many archives also include a library. And above all, be ready to adapt or change your plans.

Good luck!


[1] This is the case at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome: most archivists do not speak English.

[2] For the Italian case, I would advise to look first at the central information system (http://archivi-sias.it/) before visiting specific archives’ digital catalogues.

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