Before beginning any research project, it is important to ask yourself why you are using archives, and what it is you are looking for. Below is some advice on how to go about searching a subject area and what type of documents you may come across.
A good place to start, before beginning your research, is to think about your subject area. For example, the tirailleurs sénégalais, and then narrow it down, such as to the tirailleurs sénégalais participation in the Algerian War. This gives a clearer idea of the period you want to search, but this is still 8 years and since there are so many documents related to this period, it’s worth reducing it even further to a particular year, such as 1962, and to a particular battalion or regiment, such as the 75e Regiment d’Infanterie de Marine (RIMa).
However, every search engine is different, and your key words may sometimes be too specific, so be aware that you may need to experiment with different search terms for different archive sites and search engines.
This is just an example of how you can take a topic and make it more manageable for archive research.
Next it is useful to have an idea of the type of documents you are looking for such as:
- Government papers including policies and financial papers
- Army records
These are just a few examples of the documents you may be looking for, knowing the type of material you want to research is often useful since it may determine which archive centre you go to or which website you search through. For example, government papers can be found in the local, regional and national archives, whilst many newspapers can be found in either newspaper archives or bibliothèques. Knowing where to look can save you much time and energy.
Before Visiting an Archive
- Check out what is online first
- Does the archive website provide guidance on what’s available and how to access it?
- Use the online catalogue if possible, the more you can find on the internet the better.
- Explore other archive websites, get in touch with the centre if you cannot find what you are looking for.
- Be aware that you may need to register before going to the archive centre, multiple visits to some centres such as the CAOM may incur a fee.
- Check the opening times for the archive centre you’re visiting, particularly if you are planning to visit an overseas centre. You don’t want to get there and find out they’re closed for the majority of your visit.
- If going abroad, expect to be there for a few days so book some accomodation in advance, this will relieve the pressure of trying to find everything at once.
- Don’t forget your ID! Some centres require two proofs of identity so check their website first to find out their specfications.
In an Archive Centre
- Be patient, accessing documents can be time consuming.
- Often original documents are kept in a secure room and a member of staff will access these for you based on the codes you request from the catalogue (this is why its always good to check the online catalogues first before coming so as to save time). You will then be able to browse the documents in the reading room, check the archive rules beforehand as different centres have different procedures.
- Not all documents are in paper form – some are digitised, on microfilm or microfiche
- You may not always find what you are looking for, so be flexible as other sources may be available
- Bring a pencil – no ink is allowed near the documents
- Bring a camera and make sure it is fully charged, this is useful for when you are researching multiple documents and is far cheaper and more practical than making photocopies. But remember you are going to have to go through all the documents after so be sure to skim read to make sure you are not taking photos of irrelevant documents!
I have a subject for my dissertation, how should I set about looking for relevant archives?
Start by searching across UK and French collections, and use sites which can search and cross-search archives. Google is useful for finding collections, but too broad for subject searches, use collections websites for this. Try not to limit yourself to just one collection/archive centre, be prepared to look further afield in order to have a broad spectrum of research.
I have narrowed down my topic but my searches do not return any results, what can I do?
Every search engine is different, try using a different set of search terms as different sites may flag up different key words. Do not expect to find what you are looking for on the first search.