By Sophie Almond |
Research day trips are, in many ways, the bread and butter of the PhD experience. Sure, you want to write 80,000 words on a very-interesting-but-very-obscure topic, but how are you going to do that without first visiting a library, or an archive? Some view these trips as a necessary (and expensive) evil, whilst others view them as an exciting opportunity to spend a day out of the office. As a first year, I’ve spent the last six months travelling to obscure corners of the country to try and track down my primary source material. Whilst these trips have often involved long days and late finishes, I’ve loved every second. Nothing beats meeting archivists passionate about their collections, or uncovering a gem in amongst a stack of papers.
Here are a few of my top tips on how to plan a productive research day trip:
Is it worth the trip?
Firstly, weigh up whether the material you’re interested in is actually worth visiting. If you’re very lucky, smaller archives are occasionally happy to facilitate some research via email for free, and this could potentially save you a visit. Similarly, some documents may be available online, so do your research before you get over-excited and book your train ticket. If you’re unsure of the exact scope of a particular collection – ask! Archivists are often more than happy to provide further information, just try and email a few weeks/months/
years in advance of your visit to give them enough time to respond.
Pre-book your material
In order to make the most out of your day, it’s worth checking with the archive beforehand whether you can pre-book material (most places facilitate this). Sometimes there’s a limit on how many documents you can request at once, so prioritise the material that you want to see first. When you’re at the archive, order your next batch of documents as soon as you can (there’s nothing worse than having to wait around for ages for the next ‘collection’ time). Writing down the catalogue numbers with a brief description can help you to avoid confusion, and makes it easier to keep track of what you’ve actually looked at. Being organised will save you lots of time and unnecessary hassle.
Plan your journey
Travelling can be stressful at the best of times. If you’re going by train, suss out what platform your train is due in at, and whether you have any changes, before you get to the station. Keep an eye out for any last minute changes/cancellations. It also helps to have a vague idea of where the archive actually is, too. Sometimes they’re in the middle of nowhere – if in doubt, follow the lost/stressed looking person with the backpack. If you can, try and book an open-return train ticket. Yes, they are often more expensive, but nothing is worse than having to sit in a waiting room for three hours waiting for your specific train. Plans can change, you might want to leave early or stay late, having room for some flexibility can be useful.
Pack food, lots and lots of food!
Possibly the most important consideration when organising a research day trip. The combined effects of an early start, travelling, and spending a long day in the archive is going to make you VERY hungry. Make sure you pack enough food! (if you have to ask yourself the question ‘will this amount of food sate me?’ clearly, you haven’t packed enough). Chances are if you don’t, you’ll be stuck on a train for five hours and the trolley service will be out of action. Don’t be tempted to rely on the overpriced archive café either. Spending £10 on a plain cheese sandwich is a luxury that most of us can’t afford – nothing beats the delights of a classic packed lunch.
Be prepared for success (and possibly disappointment)
Most of the time, archive trips are a huge success. Everything is available, everything is relevant, you don’t have to pay for a photo permit, and you haven’t run out of pencils – you’re living the researcher’s dream. Sometimes though, things don’t quite go according to plan. Maybe a couple of key items are mysteriously on long term loan, and no one knows where they are. Maybe the majority of what you’ve ordered isn’t as relevant as you thought it might be. Maybe tragedy has struck, and you’ve forgotten your packed lunch. It’s easy to become despondent, and feel like you’ve wasted your day. You have to try and remind yourself that at the very least, you’ve managed to cross a few things off your list. At least you now know, one way or another, whether you will need to come back again. For every unsuccessful research trip, chances are you’ll have three or four great ones. Don’t lose hope!
Sophie Almond is a first year PhD student at the University of Leicester. She has conducted successful (and unsuccessful) research day trips to London, Liverpool, and Ipswich, and makes an impressive packed lunch. She can be found on Twitter here.
All images: Pexels.