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Tips for Archival Summer Research

Tanya Elder

(Special thanks to Gemma Birnbaum, Executive Director, and Melanie Meyers, Deputy Director and Chair, Collections and Engagement, American Jewish Historical Society)

Preparation is the primary key for the archival researcher during the summer. Prior to heading to an archive, spend time looking at and searching through the organization's websites, online public access catalog (OPAC), and individual topical finding aids, as well as speaking or emailing with their research librarians and archivists. After combing through OPACS and websites and studying the mysterious documents known as finding aids that match your subject matter—contact the librarians or archivists (who probably have a queue of patrons ahead of you in addition to other work to which they are assigned) with your confusion and a succinct list of questions. They will get back to you shortly with answers to your queries. They will expect that you, as a serious researcher, already understand how to navigate their digital domains and decipher a basic finding aid.

Studying an organization's OPAC and websites prior to calling them helps you get the lay of the land as to hours of operation, reading room and collection policies, and to generally focus your research. Organizations you visit will each have their own unique structures and rules whether it is a one-person historical society or a university campus library. In the case of the Center for Jewish History (, the CJH serves as an umbrella organization with shared resources housing five partners with distinct, but at times, overlapping collections. The individual partners of the CJH are the American Jewish Historical Society (American Jewish history), the  American Sephardi Federation (Sephardic Jewish history), the Leo Baeck Institute (German Jewish history), YIVO (Eastern European Jewish history), and the Yeshiva University Museum (a Jewish-based museum collection). At CJH, one reading room circulates four of the five partner's in-house collections (with special rules for each organization), so looking through the OPAC and individual websites of the partners whose collections are of interest to you is an essential place to start.

Explore the OPAC with your research terms—names, subjects, places—to see what comes up. If a finding aid (a guide to a collection of personal papers or organizational records) piques your interest, remember that many of them follow the same primary pattern: a succinct Historical Note of the person or organization; Scope and Content notes provide an overview of what is in the collection; and box lists containing titles of folders and their dates. Box lists work in similar ways to book indexes, though you may not find a folder title specifically addressing exactly what you need. Archival research resembles putting a jigsaw puzzle together whereas a book's index leads you more or less directly to your subject.

Summer is ideal for concentrated research efforts but planning your trips, particularly to New York City with its expensive housing, is also important. When researching a manuscript box of documents, time easily slips away as you pour over what could be hundreds of pieces of correspondence, memoranda, reports, and photographs within a collection. You may think you will get through a five linear foot (ten manuscript box) collection in two days, but frankly, you won't know how little or how long it will take to go through the material until you physically open the box. Ask yourself whether your trip is a reconnaissance mission to scope out research possibilities or whether it is the only time you will be able to view the material. Cushion your trips with as much time as you can. In some cases the archivist may need to recall material from off-site storage. If this is the case, the finding aid should tell you if materials are located off-site and your archivist or librarian can set the retrieval process in motion before your visit, usually within 36 hours. There are costs to retrieve boxes from off-site storage, so order only as many boxes as you will be able to search through. Lastly, do yourself a favor and maintain exacting reference notes citing clearly what you found and where so that you won't scramble to relocate material for your references.

In a nutshell, summer will be more productive if you take the time to research the organization prior to your visit, seek out archivists and librarians, use your time well, plan what you want to look at and accomplish before you arrive, and note exactly what you have seen through your research citations. And… enjoy your summer!

Tanya Elder is senior archivist at the American Jewish Historical Society.