It’s not enough just to find an archive with relevant documents; you also have to find those documents within the archive. Unfortunately, every archive is organized differently, and none of them are organized for the convenience of historians. They’re arranged according to the inner logic of the organization that created them, whether that be a public administration, a charity or an individual who had his own way of filing the papers in his institute or home office. This is why large archives staff help desks in their catalog rooms.

There are three ways to go about searching for relevant documents. The best as far as I’m concerned is to befriend a knowledgeable archivist who’s happy to help. So I say something along the lines of: “I just read about someone named Smith who was supposed to be in Lyon in 1943.” And the archivist says, “Oh, that’s usually spelled Smythe in this archive” or “That would be over in ZBM/18/IIIc, let’s go look at the catalog” or, two weeks later, “You asked about Smith. I had this dossier on him sent over from a depot across the country.” Those are the archivists who have my eternal gratitude.

Another way to find documents is to start with someone else’s footnote. In this scenario you start out by reading a book on your topic or as close to it as you can get. The author will have written down where he or she found his or her sources, which leads you to an archive and, hopefully, documents relevant to your own work. The particular document might not be relevant, but it might be part of a large grouping of documents that are. Unfortunately there seems to be a vogue among archives lately to change their catalog numbers so that the call number for a document that you found in a footnote published in 1999 might not even exist anymore. Translating it into the new system isn’t always easy. I’m not sure why archives are doing this. It seems like an awful lot of work and is only an annoyance to historians. But, as I said, archives aren’t usually arranged for the convenience of historians.

There’s another way to find documents, which is to simply show up at the archive or its website and start searching through the catalog. It might take some time to figure out how the catalog is arranged and some trial and error of ordering and reading documents to understand what the catalog actually means by certain phrases. It works, eventually, but you need time and patience.

Trudging through the catalogs, though, has an unexpected advantage. Some catalog listings are simple titles of government offices and dates, but others have short descriptions of the contents of the file. If you are fortunate enough to come upon an annotated catalog, you are not only saved from ordering too many irrelevant files based on false hopes, but you can learn a lot. Reading a good catalog is like tracing the skeleton of an organization. I found out a great deal about the Dutch government-in-exile from reading through the catalogs at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague.

If you’d like to see this for yourself, you can do so on-line at the British archives. You can get to the Public Records Office catalog search page by clicking here . In the search boxes enter Abwehr and 1939 to 1949. You’ll get a list; click on the KV line with its more than 500 files. That will take you to the catalog of the interrogation reports of suspected Abwehr agents caught by the British. This is a model catalog with beautiful annotations. Reading through the short biographies of each person, you’ll see how wide the Abwehr’s reach ran.

Of course, even with such a good catalog you can’t tell how many pages are in any given dossier or what information they contain. That’s the next step: order the dossier and start reading.