Visiting an archives service

learn 02If you are thinking of visiting an archives service it is useful to plan your visit and to be aware of how archives work.

Before your visit

In advance of your visit to an Archives Service it is a good idea to be clear about the topic or period of history that you are interested in. There are a huge range of archive services around the country (over 80 listed here) each with a vast amount of material onsite. So take a moment to think about your research:

  • What is the purpose of your research – an essay, a project, family history?
  • What period of history are you studying?
  • What information do you already have about your topic of interest?
  • What specific pieces of information are you now looking for?


Now think about the dates when you are available to visit, the times which suit you and how long you have to research. This is important to allow for archives with restricted days of access.

They may require you to make an appointment or have specific opening times. Bear this in mind and if necessary e-mail or phone to arrange your visit. When contacting the archives service you should also ask the archivist whether the collections you are interested in will be available to you and if they hold any other material which could benefit your research. The more planning you put into your visit the more you will get out of it.

What happens when I visit an archives?

Not all archives services are the same and as such their procedures for visitors will differ slightly. However in most cases you will find variations on the following:

1. Reception and security procedures

On arriving at the archives visitors are required to 'sign in'. You may then be requested to leave your coats, mobile phones and bags in lockers. The staff will also provide you with a document to read called the Rules for Readers. These procedures are necessary to ensure that the archives are kept safe. In an Archive unique and irreplaceable records are made available. Careful supervision is required to ensure the preservation of these records for generations to come. It also ensures that everyone coming into the archive is able to access the material in a comfortable and quiet atmosphere.

As a researcher you will be handling original records and you will need to follow the directions of the staff in the Archive when doing so. Generally, Archives Services ask that you follow rules such as:

  • Researchers sign the attendance/visitors book each visit. Larger Archives Services issue reader's tickets
  • Clean hands are necessary when consulting records and cotton gloves may need to be worn to protect the records
  • Researchers should not bring anything into the Reading Area that is liable to cause damage to documents. This includes sweets, cough sweets, chewing gum, erasers, corrective fluid or adhesives of any kind
  • Pencils rather than pens are used to take notes
  • Archives are copyright and can only be published or reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner

2. The Reading Room

The Reading Room will have desks for the researchers to work at, often with power outlets for using a laptop or computer but do check with your archive service in advance that they can facilitate this.

Do approach the staff if you are unsure of what you are looking for or where to find it. They will do their best to make sure you are able to use their facility and find what you are searching for. If this is your first visit to the archives the staff will usually chat with you about the facilities and ask you a few questions about your area of study. They will then be able to guide you to the most appropriate material, discuss the relevant collections and how to request records. The staff may also advise you about the handling of the documents – the material will generally be quite old and sometimes brittle. As such you may be required to use cotton gloves when handling them or be asked to use a book rest to support them. Your observation of these requests will be much appreciated by the staff and ensure that the material you are researching with is preserved.

3. How do I find what I'm looking for?

The best way to start is to use the information you have already, know what kind of topics you need to explore and then talk to the staff in the Archives. Let them know in advance of your visit or when you arrive of what documents you are interested in accessing and they will direct you to the 'finding aids'. Finding aids can be in hard copy i.e. printed lists and catalogues available to consult or in a database format. These are produced by the archivist to assist you in identifying the right material for your purposes among all the other items held in the archives. In some ways they act like a directory of all the collections held in the Archives. Each collection will have a finding aid to help you navigate your way through the material and select the right primary source for your studies.

One of the most common forms of finding aid is known as a descriptive list. This is produced by an archivist in order to make the documents and archival material in a particular collection easier to access. The archivist writes a description of each record and also gives each record a code. This code is unique to that record and no other item in the Archives will have the same code. When looking at a descriptive list you might identify a record you would like to examine. This will have a code assigned to it and you will then use that code to request the document. Researchers also use the code in their notes and writing to identify the record. This will enable them or others to locate that record again.

4. Sample Code

IRL/(code for Ireland)/WD (code for Waterford County Archive)/Collection Code/Record Number

Once you have identified the record you want to consult and taken a note of its code you will usually be required to fill out a short form or docket to request the item from the Archives staff. (Show example of the docket). This will give you space to enter the title of the record, its code, who you are and where you are seated in the reading room.

The docket is used by the staff to locate the record you request from their storeroom.

Researchers and visitors are not permitted access into the stores for security reasons and also to maintain the order of the items. So a member of staff will retrieve your requested record/records and bring them to your table.

5. Beginning your research

Once you have been given your requested documents you can then begin your research. However there are a few things to bear in mind when dealing with archival records. The items you will be researching are unique. If a record is lost, stolen or destroyed no replacement can be obtained and no reprint can be ordered. So take great care when handling the items.

Remember when looking at files, that the documents within have been arranged in a particular order so you will need to ensure that you do not accidentally re-arrange them and cause confusion for the next researcher. Bound volumes will be placed on book supports to protect the spine of the volume. Photographs require gloves before being handled. Different types of records require different types of care and the staff will be on hand to help you ensure that you know how best to handle the record that you are looking at. However, once you follow the advice of the staff you will have no problem accessing archives and the information they contain are well worth the extra care and attention they require.

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