Deep in the Shelves: a graduate student’s musings on archive research

Recently I had the opportunity to embark on my first extensive research trip, which I dedicated specifically to looking at primary source archives related to my PhD research into Shakespearean ballads. There were many fantastic experiences, but also a few hard lessons to learn along the way. Below are three core lessons I have learned:

1. Read all the secondary sources

Archive research is no easy thing - when entering into a field of historical study, primary sources can seem extremely daunting to sift through, especially because they are often grouped with other archives which have little or no relevance to you. This is why it is important to scour all of the secondary material on the sources you plan to consult. Though I did read a lot of secondary writing before starting my trip, I found that I had not read nearly enough. As a result I found myself reading more secondary material on my first day at each library - save the stress and read this at home! It is much better to allow more time with the archive if you can read commentary on the sources earlier.

2.take in the bigger picture

Often with archival study you need to trawl through a manuscript book until you turn the page and find the source you are interested in. The temptation is to flick to this page as soon as possible. However, I found it very useful to study the whole book in detail: in my case I was looking at music manuscripts, usually handwritten and compiled by a single owner. These music books are like the scrapbooks I compile of music I want to play, but made by early modern people. This makes the whole book entirely useful - I found great examples of notes about performance and ornamentation that I would have missed if I had skipped straight to the specific song I was focusing on.

Take time with your sources, they have a lot to offer!

3. When studying texts in a foreign language, the librarian is your best friend

During my trip I had extensive time set aside at two libraries where I was reading in a foreign language. This was at the Paris Bibliotèque Nationale and the Irish Traditional Music Archive. In both of these cases I would have really struggled without the help of the librarians on site. I think with PhD research it is easy to feel embarrassed that you don’t know how to follow through on the research you are conducting. Never fear! Librarians are so lovely and they work at the library specifically to help you. On my first day at the Bibliotèque I spent the first day mainly with librarians, who kindly helped me sift through the various sources listed in the manuscript catalogue on my topic and work out what would be most useful for me to look at. At the Irish Traditional Music Archive the librarians helped me understand Gaelic pronunciation when references came up in both primary and secondary sources. They even pointed me to the best pubs for live Traditional Music that evening!

Librarians are one of the greatest human resources for you in early career research, don’t take them for granted!

The gorgeous Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris.

The gorgeous Bibliotèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris.