Insider Research Tools: Archive visits edition

When it is possible to do in-person research in an archive or special collection, I have a small stack of insider tools that help me. I assembled them for my PhD and over a decade later they are all still going strong, so they are an investment that will last you!

These are specialised tools that help me look at books, manuscripts, letters, drawing and prints–relevant for my research in cultural history. You may need other specialised tools for your research!

A magnifying glass

A magnifying glass is old school, but extremely functional. The visual result is clearer than the zoom function on my phone, and easier to use. I quickly to pick it up, look at a tiny blotch that may be an ink spot and may be a relevant detail, and then set it down and keep reading. My magnifying glass is tiny, only a couple of inches in diameter, as I’m usually wanting to carry it around. Have a soft cloth bag or similar to carry it so it doesn’t get scratched in your pencil case.

Buy a decent but not necessarily fancy one. It’s a tool, not a gimmick. Hobby shops like maps, stamps and small figures are probably good sources. (I got mine from a paper map shop in Oxford, which dates me!)

A ruler

I always have a 30cm wooden ruler in my pack. Sometimes I use it to set out my pages for Cornell Notes, but I also use it to measure objects. Prints, paintings and some books are correctly listed in the citations with their dimensions, and a ruler means you can measure it up there and then as you are taking notes.

Choose wood as it doesn’t shatter like plastic, and won’t set off any alarms like metal. It’s also light weight, which is helpful when you are also lugging around heavy stuff… like the next tool.

Curtain weights

These fabric covered strings of lead weights are amazing for holding pages flat in books and folded papers. The fabric means they are gentle on the pages and don’t cause damage, and they mean you don’t need to hold the book open with your hands, which is useful if you are typing notes, taking photos, measuring things, or flicking through a reference text to find out more.

It might seem like this is a hack, but if you ask for a book weight at the British Library, this is what they will loan you!

You buy these in department stores in the made-to-measure curtain section. Buy a couple of meters and then cut them down into lengths of about 30cms each. Carry 2 with you to the archives and keep the others for your desk at home and work.

What specialised tools do you need to be able to use when heading out to the archive, field or library? How can you make them durable, portable, practical?

This is the second in an occasional series about Insider Researcher Tools, the first one was about the personal reference library or Handbibliothek.


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