By Niall MacGalloway |

The majority of us involved in historical research will, at some point in our doctoral theses, be obligated to visit an archive. Whilst a good many doctoral students will choose to live close to their archives, for an increasing number, overseas archival visits are becoming more common. Most of us visiting these archives have a short window in order to do so – a week, perhaps twobefore hopping back on a plane and hoping that our findings will at least make the final thesis. How, therefore, do you get the most out of these visits? Let me give my top tips in five handy points.

1. Be prepared. The majority of archives have at least some sort of website. Find out where your archives are in the city, how to get there, what days/ times they are open, and, perhaps most importantly, what the administrative side of things involves. Some archives close for lunch, some will inexplicably close on an otherwise arbitrary day of the week. Some archives require booking in advance, and this can be extremely complicated. The Italian military archives only take bookings by telephone (even in 2015), and foreign scholars must make the booking through their diplomatic embassy in Rome. The Italian Foreign Ministry archives require a scan of visitors’ passports in order to run background checks (you are visiting a government building). These processes can take months, so check well in advance.

2. Be prepared. Look at your accommodation choices and book wisely. Once you’ve found out where your archives are and how to get to them, this makes things easier. I would advise always booking near a major transport hub. In Paris, this means live near a Metro station. In Rome, staying near Termini station is advisable as this is the only place the metro lines cross. If you are prepared, you can visit two archives per day (morning and afternoon), but only if you plan carefully how to use the transport system.

3. Be prepared. Have at least your first day or two’s document requests in your head. It is inevitable that you’ll find other things in the archives when you arrive, but try and look for an online catalogue to plan ahead. If you can’t, find out what the major sources are that top scholars have used and look at them on your first day (often plundering others’ bibliographies). Once you’re in an archive, it’s much easier to request subsequent documents and explore the catalogue holdings in detail.


Archivio Storico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (Historic Archives of the [Italian] Foreign Ministry), which was originally designed as the Fascist Party headquarters
4. Be prepared. Make sure that you turn up an archive ready for all eventualities. Have your digital camera, plus charger, a spare SD card if you need it, laptop, charger, pencil, official ID (passport is best, since you’ll have it anyway, but driving licence will do), and a letter of introduction from your supervisor. This is often needed for visiting official government buildings and should be letter-headed and in the language of the archive that you’re visiting. It is possible to be turned away from an archive because of this (although I’ve never experienced it), but the vast majority of times you’ll never be asked to show one.

5. Be prepared. Find out what institutions are open later in the evening. Often, there are libraries which are open at the weekends. These are great if you’re there over a weekend as it allows you to consult those hard-to-find secondary sources on days when archives are closed anyway. Sometimes you will require a letter of introduction which must state that you are a doctoral student. Often, some institutions attached to universities will not let in foreign students under doctoral level.

Nearly all of this can be done before you visit an archive, and in my experience it is often the most important part of the visit. Consulting documents and making sure that you see what you came to see often takes care of itself. Those who don’t check in advance with archives turn up to institutions closed for the duration of August, archives which are fully booked for the next month, or those who simply won’t let you in without appropriate documentation. I concede that those visiting archives outside Europe may encounter different problems, and are often there for longer periods, but preparation is always the key to any archival visit.


Niall MacGalloway is a third-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews writing a thesis entitled ‘The Italian Occupation of South Eastern France, 1940-1943’. His research interests include the Second World War and twentieth century Italian and French history. site:

(Photos 1: Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve in Paris)