How an archive and working in a reading hall is built up
First of all it is needed to specify that this is a description of how to use normal state archives, there is a separate discussion about archives of a particular agency.
When you come to an archive for the first time you will most likely be asked to call from the in house phone in the entrance to the reading hall to explain who you are and why you are there. If the official is satisfied with your story he will ask the guard to let you in (you might even get a temporary access card), and further discussions will take place in the reading hall. There you will normally be asked for a reference – a letter from the organization that sent you to work in the archive. The letter should be provided with a stamp and a signature. If you can get such a document it is worth getting it but you should still remember that a lack of such a document is according to the law (Federal Law from the 22nd of October 2004 N 125-FZ On the archival matter in the Russian Federation) not a reason for denial of using of an archive. When you in one way or another overcome this second barrier you will be asked to study the regulations of working in the archive and to fill out a few papers – this is usually an announcement to the director of the archive and a form where you among other things will have to tell the topic and aim of your research (to avoid the archivists questioning the seriousness of your intentions it's best to formulate this beforehand). After this you can get down to work.
It's best to start by studying the guidebook. This can be a book published with a typographical method or a self-published one that carries general information about the content of the archive and the history of its formation, which in some cases can be really useful information. Normally you can find the guide on a shelf in the reading hall or ask for it from the manager. It's best to have a look at it before even going to the archive: guidebooks are to be found also in libraries, and some of them are partly digitalized. The guidebooks are provided with various pointers that help you determine which parts of the archive (archival funds) can be of interest for you, and after this you can order (or, again, get the publicly available) lists of contents of these funds.
List of contents
The list of contents is the index of the archival fund, the next step of getting closer to the information you need. From the list of contents you find out what kind of information every file of the archive contains, how many pages it is, which years it dates back to and what number it is referred to as in the archival fund. Apart from this, there might be different additional remarks in the registers to which it is also worth paying attention, for example that some file is copied on film (microfilmed), classified or moved to another archival fund and so on. The lists of contents can also have their own indexes, primarily geographical and nominal. After having found the files you need in the list of contents you will have to order them, and in order to do this you need to fill out a request.
The request is an application form for issuance of a file from the archive, where you have to write your name, your topic and some information from the register – the name of the file and its dates (the chronological framework) as well as the number of the archival fund, the list of contents and the archival unit. To avoid having to rewrite the request it is best to look up how it is appropriate to fill out a request at the archive in question beforehand (let’s say for example that for every archival fund you need a separate form) and what norms there are regarding the issuance (for example no more than three files from one fund at once). Once you have filled out and signed the form you give it to the consultant, who then will tell you what day your order will be delivered to the reading hall.
If you came to the archive from another city they normally try to serve you faster than locals. The chances that the file will be brought to you in the same day as the order are however disparagingly small. Normally you have to wait 1-2 days, and in busy central archives it can be up to a week. At the end of your first visit to the archive, don’t forget to go to the consultant to sign the temporary access card if you are getting one, and ask how to get a permanent one.