Anthropologists in the Archives: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

Anthropologists in the Archives: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

All anthropologists should consider using archives in their work.  When I was in my 20s and working as a contract archaeologist on cultural resource management projects, I used state archives to get information on the land we worked on, and when doing ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt in 1989-90, I combed collections at the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation, the American Research Center in Egypt, and the Institut d’Égypte. And while tens of thousands of pages of Freedom of Information Act documents form the backbone of my work examining relationships between anthropologists and the national security state, much of the context for examining these documents comes from identifying supporting documents in archives.  Archives can be an invaluable resource for any anthropological project.

The best way to learn about archives is to use them.  I’ve taken undergraduate students to archives and shown them the basics on how they work and cut them loose to explore.  Sometimes it takes, sometimes it doesn’t, but it isn’t all that complicated. Archives are simple to use, but it helps to develop good photographic, note-taking, and transcription skills—and with time you can develop an artful eye for what is and isn’t important.

You simply need to find a collection of interest, use whatever finding aids are available, identify specific boxes or folders of interest, and then make arrangements with the archive to come and work with the collection (click here to see what finding aids at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives look like,  or here’s two other examples: finding aids for Margaret Mead’s papers at the Library of Congress and Sol Tax’s papers at the University of Chicago).  At some archives you don’t need a specific appointment (providing space at desks in available), but it’s always best to check by phone or email and make sure you can be accommodated or that a particular collection is available. If you are reading this at or near a university, go online and check out the university’s archival holdings and then spend a few hours at the archive looking at a collection just to get your feet wet.

Researcher’s views in two archives, Yale University Archive (left), and the National Archives at College Park (right).

All archives are a little different, and in most cases an archivist will tell you the basic rules: how to fill out requests for boxes, how many boxes you can request at a time, security protocols, rules about what sort of documents require gloves, etc. You don’t need to know what you’re doing when you first use an archive, there are people there who will help you get started.

Different scholars have different tastes in archives, some prefer well organized or indexed collections, while others like the sort disorganized mess that makes it difficult to know what you’ll find but holding the possibility that unrecognized treasure awaits in the next carton.  I apparently never learned from my youthful misadventures of squandering vacation spending money burning a hole in my pocket on gift shop grab bags (filled with the tourist bric-a-brac that other kids didn’t want to buy), and I remain irrationally drawn to unsorted poorly described collections, taken in by the hope that there might be treasure waiting in one of the boxes—but I also have a high tolerance for ambiguity and chaos.  During the last few years I have been working on a project with key materials at the Yale University Archives and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution Archive.  The Hoover collection, is massive (over 400 large—apple crate size boxes), and incompletely described.

Tracking down a particular archival collection is not necessarily as straight forward as say finding a book.  There is not a central database listing where all archival collections are housed, but there are some basic steps you can take to find a collection. [As Robert Leopold reminds us in the comments below, when searching for anthropologists’ papers an excellent place to start is the Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Record’s (COPAR) Guide to Anthropological Fieldnotes and Manuscripts in Archival Repositories.]  If you are looking for a collection associated with a particular scholar (say, an anthropologist’s papers), start by looking on the university special collections webpage of the institution that where he or she was last employed, or most significantly affiliated. If this doesn’t help, I check the universities where they were students; then write colleagues at their last institution; check the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archive; and write scholars familiar with their work asking if they know what happened with these papers.

Here are some basic tips for getting started working in archives.  I’m sure I left out some good tips, and welcome others to add them in the comments below.

  1. Do as much homework with finding aids as you can before arriving at the archive. I usually have at least a day’s worth of a batting order for the files I’m requesting, with brief notes to myself on why I want a particular box, because its easy to forget why you pulled a specific box.
  2. Don’t get all secret agent about your project—be open and communicative with archivists and tell them what you are trying to do. In most instances archivists know more about the collections than anyone else on earth, and they are there to help you.  I have had several archivists, over the years, tell me about other collections, at their archive or elsewhere, that I might want to consult for my project.
  3. Follow archive rules closely. When you check in, an archive employee will tell you the specific rules of the archive—which are all a bit different. You will be told things like how many boxes you care request, only keeping one box on your desk at a time, photography rules, no flash photography, only one folder on your desk at a time, not eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while handing photographs of Gene Weltfish, rules about keeping things in plain sight, when you have to use gloves, etc.
  4. Keep notes as you work through boxes and folders. I can’t stress enough how important it is to always track the box and folder where documents come from; I recommend making both written and photographic notes. This is your only way to properly cite and later relocate documents, and it is difficult to know what will be important later on. If possible, take photographs with paper to the side recording box/folder/ accession number. Two decades ago, almost no archives would allow researchers to use cameras, or even laptops, now most allow both.  But even with photographs, it remains important that you keep notes as you work through materials, because patterns inevitably develop later that are not apparent when you first work through materials and you need to be able to later find things that had no significance when you first found them.
  5. If an archive allows camera, bring one with a decent stabilizing setting and go wild photographing anything that might be of interest later—but don’t substitute this for reading things and jotting notes while at the archive. Unless the archive is in close proximity to where you live, and can easily return, it is important to read as a work though boxes because often this can determine what other materials you consult next.
  6. When doing day long sessions in archives, take regular break so that you can diffuse brain clouds and think about the materials you’ve found, and think about next steps. [note: this tip comes from my colleague, labor historian Aaron Goings, and while no doubt good advice, I never do this—when I work an archive I hit it hard, entering an archival trance, and barely take a lunch break.]
  7. Don’t just consult materials that appear to have direct bearing on your research—when examining boxes in a collection, go random at least 15% of the time. Over three decades ago I took at Middle Eastern archaeology class taught by Mac Gibson at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.  One day he showed us a slide of Robert Braidwood’s classic excavation of Jarmo, and asked the
    Jarmo excavation pattern

    class why Braidwood had excavated the site in a checkerboard pattern.  None of us guessed correctly, that this was his 1950s effort at doing science—by sampling the site, rather than digging features he thought he was doing real science. The point of the story, wasn’t to get us to dig like Braidwood—it was more of reflection on how concepts of doing science change, but I like the image as an icon of randomization.  I always do about one in five boxes as a random pull (this is to say, a box number chosen randomly from the numbers of not significantly looking boxes), and while many of these random pulls have nothing of direct interest, I have made many significant discoveries doing this—essentially finding things I didn’t know to look for—and almost always gain insight on broader elements of the collection.  Even with limited time, this is a valuable strategy. You don’t know what you don’t know, and randomization helps expand your understanding of collections in new and important ways.

  8. You don’t necessarily have to visit an archive in person to access materials. Many archives are set up to digitally scan, or photocopy identified materials (usually found in online finding aids, listing box and folder) for a fee.  However, nothing substitutes for going to an archive in person.  You are cheating yourself and limiting what you will find if you don’t explore an archive, moving beyond the false narrative of known order presented in the finding aid.

    Archival El Dorado: Pristine Sealed Box
  9. Don’t assume finding aids are complete. Working on a collection of papers from the Asia Foundation two years ago, when I received a previously unopened box of materials (that had been deposited in this heavily used collection years before) as the result of a random pull, I spent an evening combining almost a dozen finding aids (listing geographical and thematic topics) in chronological order, and by using the methods of Hasbro’s Battleship game, the next day I was able to request 5 more sealed boxes that had fallen through the cracks of the various finding aids.

Next week I’ll post an entry with a sample archival document I came across in the last few years, with a brief discussion and interpretation of the document.

10 Replies to “Anthropologists in the Archives: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed”

  1. Thank you! I have just begun to use archives in my research, and these tips are really helpful. I’m also curious to know whether you have tips on how to treat personal ‘archives’: collections of documents and ephemera that are housed with individual research participants rather than institutions.

    1. I’ve used these sort of “personal archives,” and am never exactly sure how to best cite them, so have conferred with historian colleagues–who’ve consistently told me the important thing is to clearly and consistently cite them in a way that some other scholar at a future date could likely identify and locate these papers. Reading your question, I just looked to see how I cited one such collection in print, and see the example from the bibliography in my book Threatening Anthropology, in the section with other Archival and Manuscript Sources, which lists one such personal archive as: “WJP [the initials used in the book citation] William J. Peace Papers, private collection held by William J. Peace.”

  2. Very helpful review, David! I might add – when citing archival documents that are located on government open access or privately managed sites (i.e., University/Institutes) very important to go over board on doc detail, location, time/place that it was viewed., etc.. Some of the key documents I have cited in my cold war science/plunder work (e.g., human radiation experimentation & how and why gross violation of moral and legal norms occur) have, because subsequent Governments saw content as threatening to political agendas, been removed from public access. What, where, when, and how you find the original source document can be critical to efforts of future folks to know, even if they can’t locate them in their ‘here and now’ that the truth is out there!

    1. Good point, Barbara. One of my joys of this semester is rereading Orwell’s 1984 with a first year seminar I’m co-teaching, and Orwell’s Memory Hole looms large in our present. Yes, very important to copy and thoroughly the specific provenance within a collection any such documents, for all the reasons you describe.

  3. David, let me add my thanks. This is great information. Students looking for similar advice on library and internet research should have a look at Digital Paper A Manual for Research and Writing with Library and Internet Materials, Andrew Abbott, The University of Chicago Press.

    1. John, thanks for recommending Abbott’s book. I’ve requested it for our students… in print, as digital copies of “Digital Paper” seem unavailable through library vendors. Pirate libraries, however, still illicitly stock the publisher’s e-version for free. Sigh.

  4. Celia, what level are your students? I ask because Abbott’s book targets graduate students and other scholars who have to write publishable articles.

  5. Coming at this over a month after the fact, but wanted to say “yes” to all points. Especially 1,2,7 and 9. Knowing what you want to see and requesting it before your appointment arrival will help you and the archives staff immensely. Collections are usually stored in locked rooms away from the service desk and sometimes off-site. It takes time to retrieve the boxes. The more notice you give before your arrival, the more time the archives has to prepare for your visit. And, the reminder to check seemingly unrelated boxes is so important. Archives describe in the aggregate, not at the item level.
    I could go on, but you’ve already said it so well.
    An Archivist (and upcoming anthropologist).