Archives & Archival Research

Registres des Tutelles (AEG Arch. hosp. Ia1), 1r

The goal of this post is first to explain what archives are, and then to provide some tips on the process of conducting archival research. This should help non-historians to understand a bit more about the process of researching and writing history, and archival “newbies” think about beginning their own archival research. I also hope to help explain the Genevan archives in particular, which might help students of Geneva understand what to expect as they begin conducting their own archival research. 


An archive is simply a collection of historical documents or records. There are a number of features that typically distinguish an archive from a library: archival materials are usually donated, unpublished, and unique (i.e., the materials aren’t available anywhere else). Library materials are usually purchased, published, and available elsewhere. This means that to examine archival materials, you typically have to travel to a specific location — in my case, Geneva.

There are many kinds of archival collections. Many businesses, governments, and churches create an archival collection as a way to preserve information, records, and heritage. Many colleges and universities have an archive or special collection: as an undergraduate at Washington State University, I used the Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections for research for term papers, and I’ve also used the Special Collections at my graduate institute of the University of Arizona. University archives often keep records from their own administration and have a variety of strengths: for example, WSU’s MASC has a large collection of historical photographs, and UA’s Special Collections was gifted the personal and professional papers of the late Heiko A. Oberman, historian and theologian of the Middle Ages and Reformation and former Director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies.

Archives are used for more than just historical research: filmmakers, lawyers, demographers, reporters, and writers all use archival material for research. Perhaps the most common use of archives are people performing genealogical research to learn more about their own family heritage.


Archives d’État de Genève (AEG)

Geneva has exceptionally rich and well-preserved primary sources, held at the Archives d’État de Genève (Genevan State Archives). This perhaps explains why the Genevan Reformation is an especially well-researched subject in early modern European history. Furthermore, the AEG has a particularly well-kept, informative, and (usually) easy to navigate website, which is critical for planning archival research from the other side of the Atlantic.

Entrance to the AEG

In Geneva, the archives are public, which means you do not need special permission, approval, or references in order to enter the archives and use the documents. At the AEG’s main location in the middle of Old Town not far from the Cathedral, you will consult documents in the Salle de Lecture (Reading Room). The first time you enter the reading room, the archivist or staff on duty will ask you to fill out a brief form, but you are not required to present documentation like an ID or letter of introduction like you are in some archives. After this initial time, you simply need to tell the person on-duty your name as you enter the archives (I find showing my name written on a notebook to be helpful, as both my first and last names are not especially French-friendly).

Reading Room at the AEG

In order to request materials, you will fill out a Document Request (Demande de Document), which requires your name, the name of the document, and information on the location of the document. (Note in the examples below I provide slightly different finding information — this is dependent on the document you request, and whether it is in the AEG’s main building or annex.) I suggest writing in cursive, as this is more likely to conform to French handwriting conventions — and be especially careful with the number 1! You can request multiple documents at once, although I rarely do, but if you wanted to compare multiple registers you would certainly be able to.

After returning the request to the archivist or staff-member ‘on-duty’ in the reading room, you will sit and wait for your document to be accessed and delivered to you. Requests are only filled at a quarter-after the hour, except for a two hour lunch break beginning at noon — i.e., requests are filled at 9:15am, 10:15am, and 11:15am, and then at 2:15pm, 3:15pm, and 4:15pm — so be sure to time your arrival at the archives properly. Materials might take some time for the archivist to locate, so be patient, and be sure to bring some reading material for your wait. Another note is that you’ll have access to free wifi at the AEG (and throughout a number of public buildings in Geneva) after first registering with a cell phone number. Not all archives offer wifi, and this has been critical for me for checking the online Dictionnaire du Moyen Française while working with archival documents.

Using the Documents

While working with documents, you don’t wear those white gloves you sometimes see presented in the media (in fact, wearing gloves is discouraged at most special collections and archives now!).

Most likely, you’ll want to take pictures of the documents you’re working with. I actually prefer completely photographing the document and then working with the images — this is mostly because when I return home, I’ll still have access to these images, and so I think becoming comfortable working with the images is key. Some historians prefer to use cameras, but my preference is to use a document scanning app available for purchase on iPads (DocScanHDPro). The app I use allows me to “scan” a document by taking pictures of each page, which it automatically collates into a PDF. I can choose to make each page color or black and white, as well as alter the brightness and lighting, which is helpful in making each image as legible as possible. I also appreciate that I am able to title each page — I habitually title each image of a PDF with the page number and recto or verso (e.g., 1r) to aid in writing citations later on — and that I can ‘interact’ with the images, by adding text or highlights. I find this especially helpful in ‘flagging’ important sections, or difficult words and abbreviations for myself as I work to become comfortable with a particular hand.

Demonstration of interacting with archival document through iPad docscan app (AEG Arch. hosp. Fe1, 1r)

You’ll also want to devise a system of record and note keeping as you work with archival documents. I can’t overstate how important this is: you’ll likely be working with these archival materials for three, five, even ten+ years, and you want to make it as easy on yourself as possible. (This is another reason I photograph my documents.) I’m still working on how to best organize my notes, but currently my system is to type or handwrite notes as it pleases me, and after returning home I will organize my notes by topic in a binder, with citation information clearly marked. This makes my notes difficult to search, which I think is the primary benefit of keeping notes on your laptop, but I have always preferred handwriting at least some of my notes. For tips on managing your research, I suggest reading the helpful AHA blog post Data Management for Historians.

Before Going to the Archives

  1. Before going to any archives, makes sure you know the expectations and norms of the institution, such as how to request documents, whether you can use a camera, etc. The AEG has a welcome packet that includes this information and more.
  2. Search the institution’s website for finding aids or inventories. Finding aids detail an archives’ holdings, and this information is critical to planning a dissertation project, research trips, and  writing grant and fellowship applications. The AEG’s finding aids are available here: under “Recherche de documents numérisés,” select “Inventaires.”
  3. If the archives allow you to take pictures, decide if and how you want to go about this, and make sure you have a plan to make these images accessible for future research.
  4. Ask for help! Ask more advanced students what they did in the archives, how they prepared, and what they wished they had done better. (This is how I learned about the app I use for taking photos in the archives.) Search the internet for suggestions or posts relevant to the archives you’ll be using. Reach out to senior scholars for assistance and suggestions.
  5. Finally: consider undertaking a one to two week preliminary research trip before diving into your archival research. I thought this was an onerous requirement of my dissertation advisors, and couldn’t understand why I should undergo a preliminary trip — I knew the website! I accessed the finding aids! I knew what to expect, right? Not quite. Only after accessing one of my documents, the Registre des Tutelles, did I learn how difficult (and intriguing!) of a source it would be to work with. Regardless of all the information you might find about your sources online, in finding aids, and in secondary sources, there might still be surprises in terms of length, size, content, and availability of your sources. A preliminary research trip will let you sort out any difficulties and challenges before committing yourself (and your time and money) to a longer trip.

For More Information…

If you’re interested in learning more about archiving, take a look at these blog posts:

And if you’re planning an archival research trip to Geneva in the future, I’d love to talk with you about it! Just shoot me an email at krcoan [at] email [dot] arizona [dot] edu.

Resource Round-Up

Here’s a round-up of resources included in this post:


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