I recently returned from Poland from an archive research trip. I thought I was completely prepared for this trip, but I must admit that you can NEVER be too prepared. I made appointments with each of the archives in advance. I also looked up “fond” numbers, which refer to a specific group of records. Then, I e-mailed each archive with the fond numbers of records I hoped to use.
When I arrived in Poland, several archives were expecting me and had prepared materials I would need. I received packets for each of the fond numbers I requested. I assumed that these were the actual records, however, they were the indexes for each of the individual fonds I had requested. Within each fond (record group) there were numerous entries in the indexes called “Sygnatures.”
My next step was to choose the sygnature within the Fond record group. Each fond index could be quite lengthy. For one particular fond that I requested, the index stood about 9-10 inches high! Just looking at the index to choose the items I wanted was a big project. I did not find these sygnature indexes on the online catalogs or perhaps was not aware of them or how to search for them.
In many state archives there are specific times when book orders need to be submitted during the day. These requests are gathered from the patrons and completed at the same time. In some archives, materials were off-site and brought in at various set times throughout the day. Therefore, the more precise the information that you have, the less down-time you will have waiting for materials you need.
It was most helpful to have an interpreter with me to fill out the many forms. When you arrive, you must first fill out a personal information form, which was in the Polish language. The two-sided form required passport number, name, address, purpose of research, and sometimes place of work with a letter of introduction from your employer stating the purpose of your research. This form was valid for one year at that archive only.
The next form was a smaller sheet of paper which would later be cut in two. The top portion remained with the archive and the bottom was used to retrieve the book. Both sections of the form required the same information, including the fond number, sygnature, name, date of order and return, comments, and page number, if known. Each item ordered needed to have this request form completed. After receiving the books you requested, there was another form in front of each book that required name, date, and the purpose of the request.
If you were using books that hadn’t been used previously, often the archive worker would have to number the pages prior to your receiving the book and also place the check-out form in the front of the book, where he or she would add the title and number. For each copy requested, another form was filled. In most archives I visited, copies were not allowed without manager approval, which depended on the physical condition of the materials requested. This usually takes several weeks. Copies can also be digitized to CD.
I hope that my experience will help you if you have the chance to visit Polish archives. You will be better prepared than I was!