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Visiting archives in Germany: a guide to discovering and using them: Get Ready

This guide is designed to help you finding your way through German archives and to enable you identifying exactly what you need for your research - quick and easy.

Speaking archival?

If your German is a little rusty...
Even smaller archives will quite certainly be able to understand and deal with enquiries you made in English. Some archives, however, will answer you in German.

What you should note
Archivists tend to use a rather specific terminology that even native speakers might have trouble understanding. Therefore you might want to have a look at the glossary where you will find the most important German terms - from A for Akte to Z for Zugang.

Can you read this?

 

The German poet and caricaturist Wilhelm Busch (1832-1908) wrote this poem ("Schein und Sein" ) in a form of handwriting called Kurrent.
It was the most common German script of the modern era up until the middle of the 20th century. But it is not the only form of handwriting that you may encounter in a German archive.
There are different ways of becoming accustomed to the script prevalent during the time you are researching on.

One of the best is ad fontes offered (free of charge) by the University of Zurich (German only, registration required).

Written source material including transliterations is also available here:

Be prepared - Are you ready for the archive?

Using German archives is easy when you have prepared for your visit. Here's a checklist which can help you get organised in advance of your visit.

  1. Find out what you are looking for!
    A visit to an archive starts in the library! Read the avaible primary and secondary sources and carefully define the scope of your topic. Make sure you are aware of the methodical demands and implications of your study. Students and phd students should best discuss these questions with their tutor. Put down your research question in writing.
    Proper preparation will save you time consuming visits to the archives. Because ultimately you will only be able to discover what you already know of! You need to know the context in order to connect the dots. It will also be easier to decipher the names of people and places mentioned in your handwritten source material. And you will only be able to recognise things out of the ordinary once you know the ordinary!
     
  2. Make a priorised list of all the institutions, people and government departements or agencies you need to look at.
     
  3. Find out which archives have what holdings using this guide.
     
  4. Make a list of all archives that may hold relevant information on your topic consulting this guide.
     
  5. Do any of these archives have a web page? If so, then try to get a general idea of their holdings using their online tools.
     
  6. Do make use of online finding aids if available.
     
  7. Get in touch: Send a letter - or better an email - to the archive.
    It should contain the reason for your enquiry (phd thesis, research project, genealogical research etc.) and your topic as well as your research interest. Maybe you can name specific people, events, or dates related to your topic? It is important to be detailed and precise so that the archivist can get a good idea of your project and is able to tell you whether it would be worth your while visiting or not.
     
  8. Announce your visit, make an apointment, and - if possible - order some of the records you need so that they will be waiting for you.

What to expect on your visit

If you have not used an archive before you may be wondering what to expect.

  • There will be a little paperwork (agreeing to the terms and conditions of the archive; "Benutzungsantrag").
     
  • Depending on the archive there might be a fee.
     
  • Provided you have announced your visit beforehand, the records and files you need may already be waiting for you.
     
  • During your stay you will most certainly come across other records that you need to consult. You definitely want to use the local finding aids that have not been digitised yet. It might be advisable to talk to the archivists again about your topic.
     
  • Depending on the archive it might take some time before the records you have ordered arrive from the stacks - sometimes a day, sometimes it can be very quick. Most archives have specific times for getting records from the stacks ("Aushebezeiten").
     
  • Archival records can only be used in a reading room. You will not be able to borrow them.
     
  • Post-its are taboo - you need to write things down seperately.
     
  • Quite often archivist will not be happy when you are using pens or biros - it is advisable to resort to a good old pencil.
     
  • If you are working with old and fragile material you will be provided with cotton-gloves that will prevent sweat from damaging the records. Usually, there are also foam wedges available to prop up books or files and little bags filled with sand to hold the pages open.
     
  • Different archives have very different rules on copying. You might be allowed to photograph the material (without flash!) or you might have to get things photographed for you and pay a fee.
     
  • Archivists are always willing to help you finding and ordering the records and files relevant for you - but they will not do your work for you!
     
  • And after your work is done? - Archives generally request a copy of the book or article you wrote using their material.