This post was written by Katya Morgunova, King’s College London. It is part of a series of posts on researchers’ experiences in libraries and archives.
Saint Petersburg archives are located in some of the most iconic buildings in the city centre. For example, the Archive of the Orientalists, which houses manuscripts about Asia, is in a palace that used to belong to an influential noble family.
Palaces have big and small rooms, and the reading spaces tend to be located in the latter. So one must consider that there may not be enough space for a laptop, especially when your desk is filled with relatively big ‘units’. My archives allow up to 5 units per day, and these vary from a single page to an enormous folder that would barely fit into your cabin-size luggage.
If you choose to handwrite, look around to see if the pencil-only rule really has to be followed. In all three of my archives, I didn’t see a single person without a pen. At first, I was the idiot in town, even signing official documents with a pencil. Now it’s been a month of writing with my pen, though, and archivists are still friendly towards me.
Having said this, make sure you’re not breaking rules alone, and not breaking the ones that genuinely matter to the institution. In two out of three archives, taking photos is not allowed. If you go against this, the cameras staring at you will denounce you, and then expect to be denied further access. These archives partly rely on the income from expensive copying services, and it’s not their fault.
My three institutions house all sorts of sources: correspondence, diaries, legal documents, autobiographies, sketches of later-to-be-published scientific/ literary articles with corrections, reviews of and even angry complaints about each other’s articles. Since I was looking at the period around 1900, many of these were typewritten. However, some of the most exciting ones that reveal the most secret information have to be handwritten – sometimes in awkwardly ugly handwriting. It gets easier to read after a while, but make sure to allow some time to get used to it and be patient, especially if you work with sources in foreign alphabets.
It’s worth planning a whole research trip around the archives’ opening times. Some open every day, some for only 8 hours a week (spread out over Tuesday and Thursday, with lunch breaks…). The Archive of the Russian Geographical Society closed for 3 weeks for their sponsors’ meeting. Luckily, I had phoned them a couple of months earlier and was prepared for this.
Overall, I would say that conditions in archives are not always easy. The SPb division of the Archive of the Russian Academy of Science, for instance, is as popular as it should be – but this means that the staff sometimes have to cram 27 readers in a day into the reading room that is designed for 10 people. However, the archivists remain warm-hearted and efficient. If you give them the respect they deserve, they will ensure that you learn a lot of fascinating information about your topic!