Archival Research: Tips from an Insider

Using Archives

Archives can be confusing and frustrating. They require scheduling, advanced communication, and compliance to rules and regulations. They require deep expertise. Archives are special places full of untapped discovery and knowledge. Where else can you research, touch, and experience the real thing? But they are sometimes difficult to access and understand. I know. I’m an archivist, but I’m also a patron.

Archives are literally the historical record. They are the primary and secondary sources, the letters, photos, films, and artifacts that help us understand the who, what, when, why, and how of our collective past. But Archives can also be mysterious and confusing. They have rules and guidelines to preserve the integrity of collections. Rules, like checking bags at the door, writing only with a pencil, allowing only one folder to be reviewed at a time, can be cumbersome, and admittedly, can appear antiquated. But they are also deliberate. These rules help archivists protect fragile records from overuse, enforce security, and honor donor arrangements, copyright, and state and federal laws.

And sometimes, what you’re looking for simply isn’t there.

I remember flying from Illinois to Washington, D.C., in 2003, to finish up research at the Library of Congress. It was the culmination of four years of work, and based on the finding aid, the records of Congressman John Hickman were sure to contain the records I needed. They held the smoking gun. After much trouble and expense, the collection, contained in a small box, were wheeled out to me on a small cart. I opened the box, then the folder, and pulled out only a few letters—fewer than I expected. They were disappointing to say the least. It took less than ten minutes to review everything. I was back on the plane later that day, stewing in my disappointment.  

Reading Room, Library of Congress

But here’s the thing about archives. What was disappointing to me, based on my research, may be the most importance part of someone else’s research. Value is in the eye of the beholder!

Original Order

One archival principle, I find, creates great confusion for the end user. We call it original order, and it differentiates libraries from archives, and archives from a keyword search in your favorite online search engine.

The Society of American Archivists glossary defines original order as “the organization and sequence of records established by the creator of the records.” Essentially, this means that records are organized as the creator organized them, not as the archivist or the researcher prefer that they be organized. Some creators organize by date, others by alphabetical order, and others with no organization at all. Depending on the circumstance, archivists preserve this order, or lack of it, as it provides insights into the creator, and potential connections that may not be fully understood at first glance. In this way, it recognizes another archival principle, which is to do no harm. This often refers to physical harm (why we use only reversible techniques), but the same concept can apply to organization and arrangement.

For original order, let me provide an example from my research for Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture, and a central character named Theophilus Brown. Brown was a 1901 graduate of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an engineer and experimental product manager at John Deere for forty-one years (1911-1952). His diaries, which span most of his career, are available at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Archives, and were a primary source for the book. From the information in Brown’s diaries, I had a key to Brown’s career and relationships. I also had a key to understanding records in another repository, the John Deere Archives.

In the John Deere Archives there is a collection of reports, articles, and product literature related to Henry Ford and the Fordson tractor as kept by Brown. These materials could have been easily broken up into individual records when they were processed in the 1980s. The contents would be easier to find based on a keyword search. Instead, they were kept together. To a novice, this may just appear lazy. The processing archivist had to only catalog one record instead of dozens. In reality, this was deliberate decision to retain original order. And to me, researching forty years later, the fact that they were collected by Theo Brown, a John Deere engineer who was working with Henry Ford, Joseph Galamb, Charles Sorenson, and others at Henry Ford & Sons, adds significance and credibility to the records. It demonstrates the type of information that was important to Brown in his own investigations, and provides insights into his role is a negotiator between Deere and Ford. It informs what he knew and when he knew it. This knowledge was instrumental to my research, and provided invaluable insights into Brown’s priorities. Thank you, original order.

Role of the Archivist

Archivists serve as interpreters of their collection. They become expert about some of the subjects in their collections, but their job is to be expert in the organization and retrieval of records in their collection. It’s an important distinction. Finding aids, catalog records, digital surrogates (digital versions of analog records), and physical storage strategies are all part of the archivists’ domain. It’s also why you should never start a request with “Can you tell me everything you have on (fill in the blank).” Archives are not arranged that way. However, nothing makes an archivist happier than the user contributing to the search, providing their expertise and insights into the process. What people, places, companies, products, affiliations, etc., can be added to the search strategy? Collectively, archivists and their patrons work as discovery engines. It requires cooperation, patience, and time.

On Your Next Visit

The Internet has trained us to expect answers from a keyword search. But archives aren’t built that way. A keyword search can be a first step, but it alone does not hold the answers. Here’s a few things to keep in mind the next time you contact an archive.

  • The archivist’s job is to identify records and to facilitate access;
  • The archivist’s job is not there to do your research;
  • We do not yet live in a world where a keyword search provides all of the answer;
  • No, we cannot digitize it all for you;
  • To fully review records, you probably need to visit. No, we cannot tell you if it will be a valuable trip because we cannot know what will be valuable for you.

Yes, rules and structure can be difficult. But there is method and purpose. They are the reason the records are there, and will be there when you return in the future. Archivists are in it for the long-term. To me, above all else, the principle of original order speaks to something that is less and less common in the world—an admission that perhaps there are things we do not yet know. So, on your next visit to an archival repository, be patient.  You may just do something no one has done before in those records, linking collections, making connections, and adding to our fundamental understanding of the world.

About Admin

Neil Dahlstrom Posted on

John Deere archivist and historian. Author of three books, including Tractor Wars, The John Deere Story, and Lincoln's Wrath.