Jamel Ostwald's
Gateway to the Early Modern World



Archive Survival Guide

This is a "wish list" of items that might be helpful for those planning research in the archives. Note that there are many different types of archives, and my personal experience is limited to west European archives (and rare book collections in the U.S.) dealing with 17th and 18th century Europe. The usefulness of these suggestions may vary depending on the particular archives and documents you need to consult.

The most important "item" would be to make sure you can understand the language. Foreign languages are obviously of most concern, and the further back in time you research, the less your documents will read like the modern language, so figure out as many of the "secrets" of the trade as you can.

The second most important "item" would be to make sure you can read the handwriting - paleography. Many periods and languages have published guides that you can practice with, and you may be fortunate enough to have reproductions to practice on before you head to the archives. You could also photocopy or scan in examples to take with you as aids - they now have technology which allows you to scan images from microfilm onto a computer. For some elementary suggestions, see DoHistory.org. Starting out, you might want to mimic the line breaks in the text rather than let your word processor automatically wrap the text to the next line. It might even be useful to keep samples of various individuals' signatures and handwriting. Also, beware of special abbreviations and other shorthand notations - what seems like a mere squiggle or flourish might actually be a person's abbreviation for a prefix or suffix. For a medieval/early modern English site, see http://paleo.anglo-norman.org/palindex.html. Many of these conventions might be language-, period-, or even script-specific, so be sure to check out the paleography guides for all the languages you will be reading.

The third most important item would be to bring a laptop computer and take all your notes on it, making sure to make backups. A laptop or Palm/Pocket PC also offers several additional perks: checking email, visiting websites, even playing your MP3 songs - something I find particularly useful to avoid the tedium of copying verbatim pages upon pages of notes. All archives allow pencils (and probably none of them allow pens), and I'd hope most also allow laptops by now. Whether there are electrical outlets near your desk is a separate issue, so you might want to bring along an extension cord - with the appropriate plug converter - just in case. Starting in early 2003 full-featured Pocket PCs have started to come down significantly in price (Dell Axim Pocket PCs cost around $300) - you can get various software programs for these PDAs that might not only help you with research (Personal Information Managers, dictionaries, etc.) but even keep you sane (games, music...). If you plan on doing any note-taking or data entry on PDAs, you'll definitely need to buy a portable keyboard to go along with it.

A March 2001 discussion on the H-GRAD listserv provided some more general suggestions, and I've taken the liberty of incorporating some of these recommendations into the following list:

Other "gadgets" I've found useful include:


Further recommendations or suggestions are welcomed. I suggest Microsoft products only because that's what I use and they're ubiquitous.

Last Updated: February 9, 2005