The first archive I visited was the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. Not having been in an archive before, I had a lot to learn about the process of requesting and viewing the material. There were all sorts of procedures and restrictions to navigate and although none of them were overly complex it was a bit unnerving to start with. For anyone thinking about visiting an archive, here’s the process I went through. Every archive will have slightly different procedures although I think this one is typical.
First I searched and then requested the items I wanted to look at online. It’s best to apply for a registration card and request which items you want to look at ahead of time so that they can get the items ready for you.
The record of what is in the archives is catalogued and I got some instructions from the archivist responsible for that particular section of the archive on how to find relevant material, although searching for key words worked well. The first thing that struck me in searching was how much there is to sift through – I’ve later discovered that this is a common issue. Archival overwhelm is real, so it’s important to stay focussed on your line of enquiry.
The archive is housed in the National Library, just across from Edinburgh Central Library on George IV Bridge. It’s a big confusing old building but the staff are friendly, even if it’s all a bit stern and intimidating at first. You can only take certain things into the room where you look at the materials – you can’t use a pen while in there, only pencil and other than that, you can only bring in a notebook or laptop/phone. There are other rules and its best to read up beforehand. If you have to show up with other things, check how you can store them – you might need a pound coin for a locker.
Once in the reading room, the archivist identified the six items I had requested (you are only allowed six at a time), I was given the items one by one. There were all sorts of lovely soft weights and props for the documents so they didn’t get damaged them. I didn’t use many this time but I enjoyed the idea of books having little sofas to rest on. Once I had gone through all six folders, I was able to request more – if you do this before a lunch time cut-off point, they can sometimes get out more for you by the afternoon. This is worth knowing if you’ve got a lot to get through, so be prepared with your list of what you want next.
My first visit to the National Archives was a bit of a learning curve, but I found some fascinating material for the Saltire project and it prompted visits to other archives, armed with far more knowledge of what to expect.