Every graduate student looks forward to their first big research trip, but once you sit down to the plan the trip, that excitement can quickly turn into anxiety. Unlike a vacation, a research trip requires extensive organization and coordination, such as determining where you need to go, what sources you will look at, and the logistics of how you will get there, to ensure that you make the most of your time. This piece offers advice to help get you started with the planning process.
As a Ph.D. candidate doing research for my dissertation in early 2022, I worked for a month in the communal archive of Montpellier, France and spent three months travelling across Italy to work in multiple archives and libraries. I learned a lot from these trips and hope that my advice makes the process of planning an international research trip more manageable!
Look at catalogs before you go and make a ranked list of your priorities. Most libraries and archives have searchable catalogs on their website, or they might also be part of a larger regional database. If not, you can find their catalog using your library’s resources. If the catalog is quite old, then it might be scanned and searchable online at sites like Internet Archive or HathiTrust. Review the catalogs to determine what sources you need to look at before you go and make a list of what things you think are going to be essential to your project. You do not need to know the specific argument for each chapter, but it helps to have a general idea of what events and/or people you will be discussing. Catalog descriptions are frequently vague, and as a specialist in your field, you will notice details in the texts that did not stand out to the archivist.
To ensure you do not miss something important, think broadly about your dissertation, and if it seems even tangentially relevant to your research, then add it to the list, but maybe rank it lower than something you are certain will be relevant to your argument. For example, sources that mentions a specific actor or event from your dissertation should be a higher priority than a source that is from the same period but only thematically related to your topic. Once you have examined the sources that are straightforward and high on your list, you can take time to review the sources that are more tangential or ambiguous to see if any vital details were left out of the catalogue description.
In other words, every historian dreams of discovering an unstudied source, but you must collect all the known sources before you start panning for gold. Be sure to look for specialized catalogs, which list all the sources that are associated with a particular topic or period and tend to have more detailed descriptions. If you get overwhelmed, reach out to an archivist and they can point you in the right direction.
Check the archive’s hours. This might seem obvious, but libraries and archives do not have uniform hours of operation. For example, government archives may close on national holidays, some archivists do not work full time, and some collections are held off site and take time to retrieve. Operating hours and holiday calendars can be found on the archive’s website or in some cases by emailing the archivist directly. Keep in mind that other countries tend to incorporate closures for days of religious observance. If you plan to conduct research in countries such as Italy, Spain or France expect for the archive to be closed on the feast days of the Catholic Church and for regional festivals.
Even if a library or archive is open, they may have limited hours for appointments in the reading room (i.e., from 9am until 2pm) or are closed for the weekend. You need to know all of this information in advance to plan your trip properly, especially if you are working in more than one location, and you will need to be on a strict time schedule so you can make it through your list of priorities.
Make an appointment. You should also review their procedures for making an appointment. Seats in the reading room can be limited and you generally need to make appointments weeks in advance in order to guarantee your spot. In some cases, you can make the appointment by registering online, but smaller archives require emailing the archivist directly to make the request. In this case, you will need to tell them the prospective dates for your visit, your qualifications and research interests, and the sources you intend to examine. This is where having a priority list will pay off! I highly recommend setting up your archival appointments before booking your housing to ensure that you can use your time there efficiently; however, this might not be possible if you are going during peak tourist season and need to reserve your housing months in advance.
Find housing near the archive. Since you will be walking everywhere, it is a good idea to find a place to stay near the archive. Basically, you don’t want to walk more than 45 minutes in dress shoes to get to work each day, particularly in the summer. If the archive or library is in the city center, then the housing options might be out of your price range. In this case, you should look for a place to stay that has easy access to public transit such as the subway or a bus stop. Put your prospective address into Google Maps to estimate your walking time to the archive and/or identify which public transit options are most convenient. Remember every minute of archive time costs money—you don’t want to have to return to the archive because you did not get to that last box—and since reading room hours are often limited, you don’t want to be late because of a commuting mix-up or snafu. Do the google mapping legwork ahead of time; plan generous time buffers in your schedule for missed subways or busses and other contingencies. Your goal is to maximize the minutes you can be present in the reading room.
In terms of housing, hotels are generally the most expensive option abroad. For example, if you want to save money by cooking at home rather than eating out, then an Airbnb might be the most cost-effective option. Conversely, if you do not like to cook and know you will be eating out for each meal, then a hostel might be the best option. Many hostels offer private rooms and bathrooms like a hotel. If you are staying for a month or longer in one location, you can generally find short-term apartment rentals specifically designed for students. Regardless of the type of housing you choose, do a little research on the neighborhood to make sure it is safe and read the reviews. If it does not have an established online presence and extensive reviews, then you should probably look elsewhere.
Double-check your funding requirements. If you were awarded a travel grant, then you will probably need to keep track of your receipts as you go and submit them at the end of the trip. You may have to provide a bank or credit card statement listing those transactions as well. If this is the case, it helps to use one credit card for all of the purchases that you want to claim. If you’re traveling abroad, you should notify your bank or credit card of your travel plans and/or find out what they will charge for foreign transaction fees. If the fees are high, then you may want to find one that has low or no foreign transaction fees because your institution may not reimburse them. Double-check all of the requirements before you book your flight and housing, in particular, to ensure that you have the proper documentation to receive your reimbursement when you get back.
Plan to organize your sources for later. You will be working with many materials during your trip so it’s important to plan an efficient way to collect and organize your sources. Does the archive allow you to take personal photos of the sources or will you need to request (and possibly pay for) scans? You can find this information on the archive’s webpage, but if not, you should email the archivist to clarify their policy in advance. If you can take pictures, decide if you will use your phone or a digital camera. The benefit of taking pictures with your phone is that you can easily upload everything to Google Drive and organize them into separate folders or with a digital archiving app like Tropy as you go. Alternatively, you could use an app, such as FastScanner or JotNot Pro, to take the pictures that automatically converts images into word searchable PDFs.
Either way, try to maintain consistency and to take notes on each source that you photograph for reference later, including key details like the catalog number, date range of the text, page numbers, titles/headings, historical actors, etc. Creating an excel sheet for each archive is an easy way to maintain this information as you go. You should also take photos of the box and photo numbers before you photograph the documents. All this advanced organizing will be incredibly important later when you need to cite the text in your dissertation, and it will ensure you do not mix up your sources.
Make the most of your time abroad. You should not expect to work 8 hours a day, every day, in the archive–especially because your time in the reading room is intellectually intensive (and often physically cold!) and the reading room will probably be closed in the afternoon or on weekends. Plan to visit museums and explore historical sites in your free time. If you’re staying in Europe, you might also consider using the extensive train system to take day trips. These experiences will spark creativity and give you a deeper understanding of the culture, which will enrich both your writing and teaching.
Most importantly, remember that you are prepared for this experience! The procedures of your visit might seem stressful or awkward at first, especially if you are communicating in a foreign language, but you will adapt quickly. All formality aside, once you get into the reading room, you will be sitting at a table with sources that you have been trained to examine, which is a familiar experience for us all. Remember that you do not have to know how you will use all the sources as you collect them. Do not expect to have a clear picture of how all of the sources fit into your dissertation or even to read them all of them in their entirety while in the archive, but do take time after each day to reflect on what you looked at and take notes on your initial impressions to reference after you get home.
Featured Image: Credit to Hannah Jones.
Great tips for planning an international research trip! It’s especially helpful to learn about the importance of catalog priorities and archive hours, and to plan ahead for organizing and documenting sources.
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