What We Do in the Archives

by Alexa Neale, Project Research Fellow

I’ve been using The National Archives crime collections (CRIM, ASSI, DPP, HO, MEPO, PCOM and J) regularly in my research since early 2012. Over the years I’ve developed techniques and strategies for identifying cases, working in the archives, analyzing the documents, contextualizing the sources and writing about them. I wrote about these processes in my doctoral thesis and touched on them in my viva, but neither of those instances required a detailed description of what I actually do in the archives. Nor could I find any literature on what to do in the archives when I started out there – I pretty much worked it out as I went along, developing strategies to maximize time and volume of documents as my different projects moved along and their needs evolved. To my surprise, it came up as a question in my interview in 2017 for my current position as Research Fellow on the Race and the Death Penalty project:

“What do you do when you go to the archives? How do you go about collecting data?”

This was a far more practical, not even methodological, question than I was used to as part of the academic job application process. I found myself trying to work out how I could answer the question using the S.T.A.R. method! Then I realized there was no trick in the question, Lizzie (Seal, Project Principal Investigator) just wanted to make sure I’d be able to hit the ground running, that I could work independently on the data collection aspect of the project and that I wouldn’t need extensive training in archive research methods to be able to do the job. As it was a role in Historical Criminology there was every chance that an applicant’s research experience could lie elsewhere – in conducting ethnographic interviews, for example, or working with survey data rather than being comfortable with working in archives. And having so much experience of working at The National Archives specifically, and with the HO (Home Office) and other files that would be central to the project particularly, was an additional benefit to the project I was happy to highlight to Lizzie and the other members of the interview panel.

My answer to Lizzie’s interview question actually gave me an opportunity to refer to the project outline in the job description – a pared-down version of the project proposal. I recommended using a slightly different method for collecting data than Lizzie had planned, a method I’m pleased to say we ended up employing. Everyone has their own different ways of working, and I’m not saying ours is the best, but so far it seems most appropriate for our project. I’ve spotted some recent articles online about what to do in the archives, but they all vary slightly depending on the particular archive’s rules and environment, and the type of documents being worked with. Here are a couple of examples that describe a somewhat similar method to ours: from the Bodleian Library and University of Illinois.

Why does it matter what we do in the archives?

Put simply, method in the archives can impact the outcomes of research. Depending on the specificities of the project, what you do in the archives can make a big difference. For examples, if you order in advance or don’t, if you read and take notes on site and how you do that, or if you photograph documents to read later… the equipment you use and the decisions you make about recording what you’ve looked at and where you found information can make enormous differences to the content, quality and collaborative possibilities of your research and its products. Your doctoral thesis, monograph, journal article, conference paper or seminar materials could be completely different depending on whether you looked at 2 files or 12, for example, or if you read only part of a large book or folder of documents rather than the whole of it.

Time is the common factor. With literally millions of documents you could look at in the stores of The National Archives, selecting from them and maximizing the amount of time you can spend reading them is important. For some researchers and academics, distance from the archive is prohibitive, the cost of travelling is significant, research days are few and far between, not to mention childcare and other commitments. So strategies that allow archive-users to see as many documents as possible in as few visits as they can are key. For some, there are other practical concerns; disabilities can literally restrict access to archives, while some people find it difficult to stay sitting in the reading rooms for lengths of time, or to read continuously for hours, or to read from white pages under the artificial lights, or focus their eyes well enough to decipher tiny type or centuries-old handwriting… Digitisation would be the answer to many of these issues, but The National Archives has so far only been able to make a tiny fraction of its vast collections available online, and it is (arguably) not the answer to every archive access problem.

Some of the above issues and complications affect the Race and the Death Penalty project, but most significantly Lizzie and I want to be able to work together on the project outcomes. Collaborating in the way we want to means both Lizzie and I being able to read the documents in the case files separately and discuss our impressions and thoughts about the cases before we write about them.

So we don’t read onsite at The National Archives. We photograph the files we need and bring them back with us, extending opportunities for deeper, slower reading, for collaboration, and even for returning to the documents later or sharing them with others. Many files I used for my PhD thesis, photographed back in 2012, have proved useful for the Race and the Death Penalty Project in 2017 and 2018. It also saves money to read off-site. Between 1900 and 1965, about 60 people who were black or minority ethnic were sentenced to death in England and Wales. This represents upwards of 150 files that could be useful for the project. The time and travel involved in getting both Lizzie and I to The National Archives and back again from Sussex to read and make notes on every one of them on-site would far exceed what the project has paid for equipment and between 15 and 20 visits over a year for just one of us to photograph the files.

So what do we do in the archives?

I see most researchers reading documents in the reading rooms and making notes on them, either by hand or on a laptop or tablet, and then perhaps photographing individual pages or selected documents (using a smartphone or similar) that they might want to view later. For us, this approach wouldn’t work, for the reasons outlined above. I also see it as risky. A couple of researchers I’ve spoken to lost their precious notebooks, or forgot to write down file references or page numbers, or wanted to check their notes or transcription later and have not been able to. Marginalia overlooked at the time of reading could turn out to be really important later, and The National Archives might be a long way to go for that.

Photographing selected documents using a smartphone or tablet would also mean that any images we took of the documents would be quite low quality/resolution, and so not suitable for OCR or publication. Even with the best high-pixel smart phone or other device, I’ve found it virtually impossible to hold the thing perfectly parallel with the document underneath, resulting in some skewing or angling of the document in the resulting image. This also renders it useless for OCR or publication. Not to mention the fact that holding a camera phone up above the desk and pressing the shutter button more than a dozen or so times in succession HURTS.

An example of an image of a document photographed using my smartphone:

A typed letter on aged paper in a folder on a table. The document almost totally fills the frame but the text is blurry, there is significant shadow, and the lines of the document are not level with the frame of the image - it is skewed.
Image of a document from MEPO 2/8449 taken with my 16MP smartphone camera.

With all this in mind, we use a high quality DSLR camera to which we’ve added a remote shutter button. Using the National Archives reading room fixed tripods and positioning the documents under the camera I can get into a rhythm of turning the page and pressing the button, capturing hundreds, even thousands of pages in a single day. Taking regular breaks and doing stretches to combat RSI from page-turning really helps because turn-click-turn-click can be hard on your wrists. In this way, productivity can be pretty high, the maximum number of images I’ve been able to make in a day is about 3,600. File depth (number of pages to a file) varies, but this many pages can represent up to 21 good-sized files, which is the maximum number you’re permitted to order and view at The National Archives in a day anyway.

Our set-up

DSLR camera with remote shutter attachment, connected to tripod fixed to desk. The camera points downward onto a document on the desk. Behind the camera and desk is the window in the National Archives reading room.
Camera fixed to archive-provided desktop tripod (see below for description).
Close-up view of Canon DSLR camera with remote shutter attachment, fixed to adjustable tripod, pointing downward onto a wooden desk.
Camera fixed to archive-provided desktop tripod (see below for description).


Some more top tips for photographing documents at The National Archives:

  • Set your DSLR to JPEG file format not RAW (saves space and conversion time)
  • Check your zoom (all the way out is best)
  • Use auto-focus settings (but make sure your hands are out of the way)
  • Use a remote shutter (it avoids camera shake as well as RSI)
  • Take regular breaks (and put your camera battery on charge when you do)
  • Order files a few days in advance (up to 12 since late-2017)
  • Order three more files as soon as you arrive (you can have three documents on order at any one time, and once they’ve been retrieved and appeared in your locker you can order three more)
  • Go there on one of the days they’re open later (Tuesday/Thursday)
  • Reserve a seat with a camera stand when you’re placing your advance order
  • Remember to adhere to all the reading room rules and regulations RE document handling and photographing, and be aware that they can and do change from time to time. It’s all very well photographing the documents so you can refer to them again, but make sure other researchers have the same opportunity by keeping them in good nick.


Bear in mind that when you get back to a PC with your bounty of images on an SD card, you will need to know which images belong to which file reference. How will you know where CRIM 1/989 begins and ends when its only 88 of 1,888 images you made of 18 different files on the same day? The best way I’ve found of dealing with this is to use that useful yellow label the reading room gives you with each file. By placing it on the top of the file and making that the first page of each new file you photograph you’ll get the date of your visit and the file reference in the shot. It will then appear as a bright yellow flag on the image thumbnail preview that will allow you to divide up your hundreds of images into different folders for different files, or convert them to PDF for easy reading (we do this with a print-to-PDF programme), quickly and easily.

The cover of a cardboard folder, edges square with the frame, with a yellow square of paper sitting on top. The yellow square has an archive barcode, date, time, seat number and file reference.
The yellow tag on the front of the folder is really easy to see in image thumbnails.

We keep a back-up of our original images in case we need to refer back to them, but we ‘print’ (convert) them to PDF to make them into easier to handle files. We can then read them on desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone, annotate the PDFs using Adobe Reader’s functions, and call on the original image files as a back-up should we want a high-quality version for OCR or publishing. (Incidentally, OCR can be achieved really easily with Microsoft OneNote, so you don’t even need a special expensive programme for that, although obviously this only counts for printed text and not handwriting.)

What we can’t do in the archives

There are undeniably some limits to all of the above. This ‘how-to’ is specific to The National Archives and would vary for others depending on the specific rules regarding reading room use, ordering, production and photographing, and these rules impact what you can do. Preparation is the key. Will you need to pay for a camera pass, for example, or pay per image you photograph? Can you take your own camera or do you have to use the archives’ own image capture machine? Do you need to book it? Do you need to pay per image you make, or write down the full reference and page number for every document you make a digital copy of? Read up on an archive’s rules in advance of your visit and ask yourself how this might affect what you want to do there. Beyond this, some method is personal taste, adapting retrieval methods to the needs of the project, file types, etc. The above suggestions wouldn’t work for large maps or rolls, for example.

The DSLR camera itself presents some limitations, too. The auto-focus isn’t foolproof, and I’ve been faced with a couple of blurry images when I’ve returned from the archives, which is disappointing if you’ve not seen the preview in the viewfinder and snapped again just in case. This problem might be overcome with improved camera skill! But the model of DSLR we chose also makes a difference: it has a fixed screen on the back which acts as a viewfinder or preview screen, meaning that if the camera needs to be set up above eye-level you have to stand up or tiptoe to check the image after the photograph has been taken. This could be overcome with a different camera model (the kind with the rotating viewfinder) or by setting up a laptop with the camera to show a preview of the whole image at reading size. I’ve seen other researchers doing this and it’s a very sophisticated, if expensive (and heavy to carry on a train!) set up.

The other major problem I’ve found is sound. DSLR cameras make a very particular noise when the shutter opens and closes to capture the image. There is no way around this. On silent mode the ‘beep’ goes away, but there’s still the audible mechanical sound of the shutter opening and closing, not to mention the lens rotating as it focuses. I’ve had to explain this to very patient fellow-researchers in archive reading rooms in the past. It’s a really annoying, repetitive sound but believe me, it is totally unavoidable (try rotating the lens by hand while it is detached from the camera and you’ll see what I mean – watch this video for a demonstration) so make sure to be considerate of other archive users and try to compromise if the sound is really irritating or disturbing to those who are trying to read documents on-site.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to go to an archive and photograph the documents held there that are not digitized, have a think about what it would mean to share those documents. I don’t mean making them publicly available – The National Archives would doubtless object (it’s against their access agreements) and there are all sorts of other data protection considerations with sharing archive documents too. But if you photograph a document that might be useful to a fellow-researcher who finds it difficult, for whatever reason, to visit an archive in person, consider offering to privately share a copy of the PDF you’ve made, or some of the JPEGS you’ve collected. If you’re going to an archive and you’re planning to photograph the files you view there, could you fit an extra one in? Genealogists have been offering ‘look-ups’ of undigitized archive documents for years – letting other family historians know which regional or national archives they’re visiting and when, offering to make a copy of a document for someone on the other side of the world. If you’re able to spare 20 minutes and a document order for another researcher who can’t reach an archive as easily that could mean an awful lot to their research. And perhaps they might be able to return the favour. So if you see anything on our blog or Twitter feed that might be useful to your research, please drop us an email – we’d be happy to share if we can. And if you’re about to visit a police archive or similar and you wouldn’t mind taking a few extra photographs for us, please do get in touch!

What we do after the archives

After coming home from the archives, recovering, charging up all the batteries for next time, uploading, converting and backing-up all our files, making them accessible to each other through our shared storage, there’s the reading and writing to attend to. Lizzie and I both employ a close-reading method which we’ve summarized as ‘reading f***ing everything’. The sources we’re using can hide meaning and interpretation even in the margins, so attention-to-detail is necessary. We each write notes, Lizzie prefers hand-written, I’m a fan of a typed summary and some visual aides-memoires, then we meet to discuss what we’ve read and invariably find things that the other didn’t notice or hadn’t considered.

While we’re reading we’re acutely aware of the need for context. The crime case files in the collections described above are all impacted by contemporary legal issues and changes to laws, policies and departmental staff. The files’ content, purpose and prevalence shifts because of, for examples, the 1907 Appeals Act, the 1957 Homicide Act, the abolition of the death penalty, the reform of the courts structure etc. A good starting point for all of this is The National Archives’ Research Guides which are an excellent resource for some of the wider historical and bureaucratic contexts that have impacted what’s available in the archive.

Over the period we’ve each been working with the documents (myself since 2012, Lizzie longer) access and conditions have changed at The National Archives too, forcing us to be flexible and adaptive. Changing archive policies with regard to Freedom of Information, personal data and disturbing images, for examples, have changed what we’re able to view and where, meaning that from one visit to the next we might have to view documents in the invigilated reading room rather than in the open reading rooms. Don’t forget your patience and courtesy toward archive staff (even if they’re giving you bad news about access to a document) they’re highly under-appreciated.

With this in mind, I highly recommend the behind-the-scenes tours offered by The National Archives from time-to-time (see their Events page for details), and similarly Heritage Open Days might allow you to see what goes on in local and regional archives. Often archive staff will be able to tell you what they know about archival practices in the past (why some documents were sent to them for preservation and some were retained or destroyed, for example) and give you the benefit of their experience in all sorts of ways. Bureaucratic processes, police practices, evidence selection and court action have shaped the documents we use and, though we’ve seen a lot of case files, we can only ever look at one box at a time. Over months and years of working in the archives staff there might have noticed things about the changing nature of the documents that you can’t appreciate if you don’t see them all laid out together on the shelf, so it’s worth asking.


After reading, making notes, collaborating and concluding, the next step is to write and share the results of our research. Approaches vary between disciplines, but as these are archive documents from 1900-1965 there is likely to be heavy influence from historical methodologies. However, it has been worth keeping an eye on other disciplines and how they refer to similar approaches. For example, ‘bricolage’, ‘thinking queer’, ‘thick description’, ‘telling cases’, ‘micro-histories’, ‘case study approach’, etc. are all different ways of describing methods that seek to compare elements between and within cases rather than making grand sweeping generalisations from them. In our research before and during the Race and the Death Penalty project, Lizzie and I have both been more interested in reading social and cultural meanings from crime case files rather than attempting to retrieve the ‘truth’ of what really happened or ‘whodunnit’. It’s worth being attentive to the fact that there are literatures in a wide variety of disciplines that describe similar approaches, draw on common methods for reading or retrieving ‘data’, and so we can learn much from casting our nets wider than the immediate sub-discipline or area we’re used to working in and sharing and exchanging not just the products of our research but the ways we go about doing what we do in the archives as well.


Author: Alexa Neale

Research Fellow in Historical Criminology at the University of Sussex. I currently work with Dr Lizzie Seal on the Leverhulme Funded project Race and the Death Penalty in 20thC England and Wales.

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