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Archives: About archives

Archives: what they are, how to find them, and when and how to use them.

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Source: Zachary Korb, Flickr. Licence.


Who is this guide for?

This guide is most relevant to MA students working on their dissertations.

Because research in archives is time-consuming, semester students, and MA students working on earlier assignments, are unlikely to have time for this.


What are archives?

Archives are (generally...) collections of (mostly...) unpublished material.  They tend to contain primary rather than secondary source material.    

They may include, amongst other items:

  • letters
  • sketchbooks and other artworks (so blurring the distinction between a museum or gallery collection and an archive)
  • unpublished photos 
  • all kinds of papers, accounts and records (especially in the case of archives of institutions rather than individuals)
  • some published material, e.g. books collected by an artist

‚ÄčIncreasingly, material from archives is being digitised for online reading and viewing.  However most remains in its original form only.


Reasons for exploring archives

  • you will be putting aside the interpretations and selections of others to engage directly with original material

  • you may find yourself looking at material which has rarely or never been examined by scholars

  • you may uncover material whose existence is not even documented (because archives are sometimes catalogued only in broad terms)

  • apart from the material evidence for your argument you may uncover, you may find considerable inspiration from engaging with this unique, historic material


But please note...

Archive catalogues often only describe their contents in general terms: occasionally in extremely general terms such as "2 boxes of correspondence and other papers".  So it can be hard to assess whether an archive will contain material useful to your researches. Even when it does contain useful material, much searching and reading in the archive may be necessary to find it. Sometimes there is no online catalogue.


Access is usually by appointment and in a few cases, notably the Tate, there can be a wait of weeks for an appointment.  This is exacerbated if you wish to see potentially sensitive material, as the institution will have to check that material first.  The Tate's own gallery records are an example.  


A few archives will want a letter of recommendation from a tutor, or may want to discuss with you the purpose of your visit first.  The Warburg Institute is an example.  


Relevant material, such as the letters to and from an artist, will often be scattered across many archives in different locations.