Columbia Global Library Services: Tips for Doing Archival Research Abroad

General Tips and Best Practices

Things to Consider Before you Leave:

Conducting archival research in a foreign country is an exciting and incredibly rewarding experience, but it can also be remarkably difficult. Although scholars frequently romanticize the process of digging through archives, that process can be messy, time consuming, and fraught with potential pitfalls. Considering certain issues before you leave on your research trip can help you to save time, effort, money, and more than a few headaches. While the archival experience varies from country to country and continent to continent, these general issues are almost universally relevant:

1) Timing:

Research takes time. Digging through archival material--of whatever variety--can be a slow, laborious process. And, crucially, outside factors beyond your control can play a disproportional role in shaping your research plan. Archives and libraries around the world vary greatly in terms of organization and institutional resources, and it is vital to consider details of each repository before visiting it. On paper, a reasonably small rural archive might only require four or five days of your time. Then you arrive and realize that same archive is only open once a week for three hours, or that it's closed in August, the exact month that you have arrived. Suddenly, your plan is in tatters. Given this, it is important that you plan your research trip to give yourself ample time to accomplish what you need to.

Don't bite off more than you can chew. If you've tentatively planned to visit twenty archives in two months, you might want to reconsider your plan. Think about the time it will take to travel between locations. Look at when each archive is open during the year (many archives, for example, close or have limited hours in the summer or during holiday periods, which vary from country to country) and how often--and for how long--each archive is open on a weekly basis. Never assume an archive is going to be open when you need it. Check.

You should also build in time to orient yourself. If you haven't been to a particular archive before, give yourself a day--perhaps even two--to get organized and to familiarize yourself with the archive, its policies, and its people. Some large archives and national libraries will have excellent human and technological resources available to help you; others may have next to nothing. Disorientation is natural and part of the research process, but you also need to take it into account as you are planning your research trip.

2) Costs:

Research can also have unforeseen costs associated with it. In addition to the travel associated with conducting archival research, it is important to consider costs you may incur when visiting specific archives and libraries. Some repositories may charge you for a reader's card; others may not. Some may even *require* a letter of introduction before giving you access to certain materials. Don't be caught unaware. Research these things ahead of time and bring the necessary documentation with you.

Even before you arrive at each archive or library, consider each institution's policies about reproducing materials. These policies vary widely, and you should never assume that you can simply go in and start snapping pictures on your phone. Some repositories may charge you to reproduce material, and it is important to take those costs into account when planning your trip and how you will fund it. Also remember that certain repositories are more technologically friendly than others. While some may have scanners on hand, or the ability to produce microfilms, others may have next to no resources for you to use. Yes, you may be able to use your phone to snap as many pictures as you want. But it is also important to remember that some institutions--for a wide variety of reasons--may still require you to do things the old fashioned way: by taking notes with a pencil. Make sure you know what each institution allows before you arrive.

3) Locating material ahead of time:

A wide variety of databases and finding aids can help you to locate material in advance of your trip. This research guide provides you with some good tools, but consider consulting a Columbia librarian in your field before you leave on your trip. He or she may have additional resources to recommend.

Additionally, consider contacting an archivist or librarian at each repository that you plan to visit. This is especially true of smaller institutions. Large archives and national libraries likely will have dedicated substantial financial and human resources into cataloging material and making it easier to locate. But smaller repositories may not have such resources available to them. In some cases, you may well find that the archivist who has been at a particular institution for forty years is the only person who really knows where everything is. Use these people. They often love it when you take an active interest in the collection that they have worked so hard to maintain. They can save you substantial amounts of time, and in many cases they may have the best information about what materials you should consult for your particular research project.

4) Plan, plan, plan...but be flexible, too:

Coming up with a good research and travel plan is often vital to conducting archival research. In addition to the matters discussed here, consider talking with faculty, other students, and librarians who have recently done archival work in your field of study. They may have valuable tips that are particular to doing research at a particular institution or in a particular country. Also consider reading the 'Fresh from the Archives' section of This has a very useful section with additional practical information and anecdotes about archival research around the world from PhDs who have recently defended their dissertations. It's a useful site, and well worth a look.

Much of this guide encourages you to plan your research trip in as much depth as you can. But it is also important to remember that research is a messy process that can take unexpected turns. Have a plan, but also be prepared to alter that plan when the need arises. Such changes may force you to cut out archives that you had planned to visit, or to add new ones. Where possible, set aside some time and money for potential changes to your research trip. Have a plan, but remember to be flexible, too.


Middle East

Hazine: a guide to researching the Middle East and beyond

A portal for researchers interested in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Includes reviews of libraries, archives, and digital collections. Intended also as a forum for scholars to discuss research methods and techniques, and the ethics of archives.

South Asia

Archival Finding Aids

Archives: South Asia (from

--The Oriental Collection at Peshawar University

--The Dr. Iqbal Mujaddidi Collection at Punjab University

--The National Library of Thailand Manuscript Collection  

--State Archives of West Bengal

--The National Archives of Sri Lanka

--Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai

--The National Library and Archives of Bhutan

--Library of Tibetan Works & Archives (India) 

--Three Archives in Pakistan

--The National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia (ANRI) 
and see also The National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia

--Four Archives in Mizoram, India 

--The National Archives of Afghanistan

--Arthur Paul Afghanistan Collection, University of Nebraska 

--Assam State Archives in Northeast India

--Alkazi Collection of Photography, New Delhi 

--Bophana Audio Visual Archives, Phnom Penh 

--Institute Français de Pondichéry, India 

--National Archives of Cambodia 

--Twin Resource Centers in Pune, India 

--Ganj Bakhsh Library, Islamabad 

--Center for Khmer Studies Library, Cambodia 

--Historical Archives of Goa 

--Adyar Library & Research Centre, Chennai 

--Rampur Raza Archive & ITC Sangeet Reseach Academy 

--National Library of Singapore 

--National Archives of Singapore 

--Tamil Nadu Archives, Chennai 

--Two Museums at Visva-Bharati University 

--Three Institutions for South Asian Art History 

--Nehru Memorial Museum & Library 

--Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai 

--An Ethnomusicology Treasure Trove in Gurgaon 

--National Archives of India