Advanced Research Methods: Archives
This series of articles considers research methods one can use at Master’s level and beyond. I want to talk about the realities of doing an extended research project and to give you some practical advice based on personal experience. I’m going to discuss some of the techniques I used in my PhD. My research was in architectural history, but I’ll explain some of the techniques of historical research which you might consider using in your work. I’ll also try to give you generic advice about research design and methodology.
Try to identify specialist archives you can use. For my subject, one of the best is the British Architectural Library at the RIBA headquarters in London. This is the best architectural library in the country; it also has an archive and biographical files on Victorian architects. I had a number of research visits to London. They were funded by the AHRC because you can apply for funding in addition to the doctoral award. I found some great material there, such as letters that Newcastle architects sent to the RIBA. These allowed me to gauge their views on important national issues such as education and registration for architects.
Another key repository was the RIBA Archive at the Victoria & Albert Museum. They have a superb collection of plans and drawings. The material in archives is just sitting there waiting to be used and you can use it in creative ways. For example, in the RIBA archive I found plans of Cragside, a country house in Northumberland. They were useful because they illuminate the taste of Lord Armstrong, who built the house. I was able to get more out of them because I found a collection of letters sent to Armstrong by the architect, Norman Shaw, in the Tyne and Wear Archives in Newcastle. To hold in your hands letters written an architect like him is part of the magic of research.
The major archive for me was the Tyne and Wear Archives in Newcastle. They have architectural plans, as well as the records of Newcastle Council, the Town Improvement Committee and the School Board. They have the papers of some architectural firms, but not as many as I would have liked. They have an extensive collection of architectural plans.