Preparing to enter “the archive”

PhD candidate Dani Shanley examines the history of ideas surrounding responsible innovation in a global context. She blogs about her first encounters with archival research. This is her first blog on her research work.

The problem with wanting to visit an archive is, you have to find one first.

Not having been trained as a historian, I found this to be a total minefield at the start of my PhD. How on earth should I know where to look..? Is X number of boxes and X cubic feet worth travelling for..? How would I know if there would be anything there that would be relevant..? Needless to say I went down many rabbit holes and had many a sleepless night in putting together my first trip to “the archive”.

After several months, I’d finally narrowed down my search, selecting a number of archives in the U.S.

Now that I knew where I was going, I became preoccupied by the question, what was I looking for..?

Leading up to my trip, I recall a number of conversations with friends and family many of which went something like this:

“So what sort of things do you look at in archives?”

That one seemed easy enough—I’d respond…

“In my case its mainly different kinds of documents… reports, articles, meeting minutes, correspondence, you know, that sort of thing…”

To which the (logical) follow up question came…

“And what are you looking for in those documents? What are you hoping to find?”

Here, I’d find myself a little unstuck…

“Well, I don’t really know… I don’t think I’m necessarily looking for anything. I’m more trying to make sense of what’s there…”

At which point, I’d typically get a slightly perplexed look and/or a shrug, before the topic of conversation would be steered away from such ambiguousness, towards the surer-footing of small talk, the weather, food, music, etc.

Meanwhile, every time, I’d be left thinking to myself… what am I looking for…? And, what will I find…?

Entering the archive is an important rite of passage for any budding historian, as we all know, it is an essential part of what it means to do history. The term is a strange way of denoting a place which is both universal and yet always contingent and contextually specific. For me, the idea of entering the archive was entirely strange and shrouded in mystery.

 While preparing for my trip, I stumbled across a special issue of the journal History of the Human Sciences from 1999 and I was immediately drawn to a couple of the titles: ‘The Seductions of the Archive, Voices Lost and Found’, by Harriet Bradley, and ‘The Ordinariness of the Archive’ by Thomas Osborne.

 Bradley’s “phenomenological account”, gave me my first tangible sense of what to expect. She described the “thrill” of entering the British Museum, and the way in which “the archive induces in its user a sense of belonging”. She talked about those who you’ll find “jealously marking ‘their space’ with their heap of books and papers and reacting with hostility when some newcomer unwittingly takes it over”. Going on to describe how these unspoken rules and norms contribute to the archive becoming “a safe place for the historian, a retreat from an increasingly cut-throat academic world”.

 Osborne’s take was somewhat different. For him, archives were generally “dry, dark, forbidding places”. Entering the archive does not induce a “thrill”, and nor should it. Entering the archive is instead about ascertaining credibility, both “epistemologically” and “ethically”. First, the archive is a site for “particular kinds of knowledge” and “particular styles of reasoning that are associated with it”, and second, “knowledge of the archive is a sign of status, of authority, of a certain right to speak a certain kind of author-function”.

 In their respective pieces, Bradley and Osborne seem to take positions diametrically opposed to one another at first (as their titles already suggest), but in fact, I’d argue that there is an important thread which connects them. For Osborne, like Bradley, the act of entering the archive enacts a sense of belonging, it is as all about one’s entry into the tribe. For me, it was only in reading these texts that the idea of what this rite of passage was all about really began to come alive.

 As I already mentioned, in talking about “the archive”, we allow the term to stand for some sort of universal space which houses particular types of experience, and particular forms of practice, while simultaneously also recognizing its reality as a concrete, physical space rooted in multiple localities. The more “architectural dimension” of the archive is eloquently reflected upon by Achille Mbmbe in his ‘The Power of the Archive and its Limits’. In which, he describes how the archive is granted much of its power through the way it is constituted in physical space… its motifs and columns, the arrangement of the rooms, the organisation of the ‘files’, the labyrinth of corridors, and that degree of discipline, half-light and austerity that gives the place something of the nature of a temple and a cemetery.

 Reading these words, I totally bought into his idea of the archive as both “temple” and a “cemetery”. The former because of the “quasi-magical nature” of its rituals, as described by Bradley and Osborne, and the latter because of the “fragments of lives” it gives shelter to. Where I had found the ways in which the rules and norms of the archive constituted a sense of belonging for Bradley and Osborne compelling, I found Mbmbe’s language about how the space itself could evoke particular experiences to be equally captivating. It was all only adding to the sense of intrigue and wonder about what this doing of history was really all about.

 In November 2019, after months of planning—anticipation levels rising—I was finally ready to see what the archive held in store, to enter the holy temple, and perhaps (just perhaps!), begin to pass as a proper historian.

I found myself on a flight to the U.S., into Boston, where I was due to spend about two weeks in the Harvard archives. From there, I would hire a car and drive across to the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, where I’d spend a week at the Schumacher Centre for New Economics. Then on to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, before dropping the car off at La Guardia in New York. After thanksgiving weekend in NYC, I’d be getting the coach down to Washington, spending a week at the National Archives in Maryland, before the last couple of days at Georgetown University in D.C.

It was certainly going to be a baptism by fire!



Bradley, H. (1999). The seductions of the archive: voices lost and found. History of the human sciences, 12(2), 107-122.

Mbembe, A. (2002). The Power of the Archive and its Limits. In Refiguring the archive (pp. 19-27). Springer, Dordrecht.

Osborne, T. (1999). The ordinariness of the archive. History of the human sciences, 12(2), 51-64.