Lights, Camera, Action: Perfecting My Research Method in the National Archives, D.C.

by: Alysha Page

Example of the Size of Registers I have been reading through. Letters Sent, District of the Columbia

Hello All! We are officially moving into the fourth (maybe fifth…? I’m in a time warp) week of research at the National Archives. One thing has become abundantly clear, slow and steady does indeed win the research race. In a mad rush to get as much information as possible before I fly off to Alaska in a few months I realized that I needed to create a more detailed research template. A way to gather information quickly whilst also not missing any important details. This way I don’t have to go back over files I’ve already looked at or retake photos. In this process, shortcuts aren’t of service to anyone. The three main areas that I revised were my research template, data entry/backing up information, and my photographing techniques.

Research Template

The Company L project is a team project which means that whatever information my fellow researcher collects I have to be able to read and understand thousands of miles away from D.C.. After taking a second look at my original research template I realized that I needed to add a much more detailed cover sheet for any data collected. With the help of the NARA Reference Service slip I expanded the Record Identification details to include the series name, volume number, and specific Inventory Entry Number for each file collected. I also realized that for each new Record there should be a general overview. This way without actually reading the file I would have a clear idea of its purpose, relationship to the project, and any important information that stood out to the researcher. Furthermore, each image collected should be attached to a separate page with detailed notes and transcription if time allows. Revising my research template has really helped to streamline the process of data collection. I am really looking forward to seeing how this new template has helped my fellow researcher.

Photographing Documents

Lighting is so important when photographing archival information. You can not use the flash on your camera because that type of exposure can damage the records and cause fading over time. So your options are either taking photographs in the dim lighting of the archives or being very diligent and making sure you reserve time to use the shooting table with LED lighting. The difference between the general lighting and the shooting table lighting is staggering. If and when at all possible I will use the scanners available at the archive, but for now with the larger letter and telegram registries the photo booth is the safest bet.

The shooting table at NARA with Letters Sent, Camp Skagway, Vol. 1

Example of photograph taken under general lighting.

Example of photograph taken under LED lighting. The difference is remarkable! Lighting can mean the difference between reading documents easily and hours of straining to transcribe.

Backing Up Data

Backup up your research! This can’t be emphasized enough. Throughout my academic career I have not had the best luck with technology, so I have learned the importance of ALWAYS backing up your data. Oh, and also having a personal relationship with the folks in the IT department. I am working with the Klondike Gold Rush NPS team all the way in Skagway, Alaska so files must be shared through multiple databases. I have made it a point to save my research on multiple platforms from the drive that connects to my team in Alaska, to flash drives, and honestly contemplating getting an external hard drive. Nothing is worse than losing all your hard work because your computer decided to act up. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

Until next time, Farewell!

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