Steps to Research
The steps below are designed to aid in the research process by providing a method through which information can be found and studied.
- Conduct background research on the topic: To gain a sense of the names, places and dates related to the event or person(s) under study. Secondary sources can also be used to identify primary sources.
- Determine which archives are most likely to contain relevant information. This involves:
- Viewing the websites and databases of potential archives. Visit the Search for Primary Documents Page for suggested sources.
- Reviewing the finding aids of relevant collections.
- Contacting the archive's staff for further information.
- Plan a visit to the archive. This involves:
- Reviewing the archive's website to determine when the archive is open.
- Alerting the staff when you are coming and informing them of the collection you wish to view. Some collections are stored off site and it may take several days for the collection to arrive at the archives for your viewing. Also ascertain if the collection you want to view is on display or is on loan to another institution. Contact the archivist if you are unable to keep your appointment.
- Determining if there is a limit on the amount of materials you can view at once, as this could affect the amount of time you need for your research.
- You may want to schedule time for unexpected circumstances.
- Guidelines when visiting archives:
- Registration: Researchers are asked to complete application forms that aid the archives in learning about patrons and their research topics. Photo ID may be required.
- Storage of coats and bags: If a public coat rack or closet is all that is available (versus individual lockers) be sure to place all valuables in your pocket(s). The use of laptops, tablets and cameras is at the discretion of the archives.
- No food or drink: This is a prohibition used by archives to ensure documents are not damaged from accidential spills. It also discourages bugs and rodents from infesting the archives.
- Use of pencil: Archivists require pencil when working with documents in case accidental marks are made on primary sources.
- Request Forms: These forms are used to request material in an archives because (unlike in most libraries) patrons will not be allowed into the archival stacks. These forms will help the archivists retrieve the correct collection and box(s).
- Maintain order and handle carefully: Archivists ask that materials are kept in the order in which they are present in the containers as this helps preserve the content and context of the archival materials. In addition, archives request that researchers carefully handle the documents that they view as this will aid in the preservation of the documents for future users.
- When viewing archival materials relevant to the topic:
- Read the materials and take notes on important concepts, viewpoints and ideas. If allowed, transcribe or photograph the document(s) if you wish. Interpret the information you find within the context of your background research.
- Organize your notes and be sure to write down the collection name, box and folder numbers of the documents you review. You may need to cite and/or refer to the documents at a later date.
Drexel University. “The Basics: Frequently Asked Questions About Archives.”
Harvard University. “Frequently Asked Questions.”
http://hul.harvard.edu/huarc/faq.shtml (Last Modified June 26, 2009).
Heck, Barbara, Elizabeth Preston and Bill Svec. "A Survival Guide to Archival Research." Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, December, 2004. http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2004/a-survival-guide-to-archival-research (accessed October 8, 2014).
Koford, Amelia. University of Texas at Austin, Center for Women and Gender Studies. "Tutorial for Archival Research on Women's Human Rights." https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/cwgs/special/echri/archival-research-tutorial/index.php (accessed October 7, 2014).
National Archives and Records Administration. "Getting Started Overview." http://www.archives.gov/research/start/ (accessed October 8, 2014).
Schmidt, Laura. Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research. Society of American Archivists, 2011. http://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/UsingArchives_Final.pdf (accessed October 7, 2014).
Society of American Archivists. "A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology." http://www2.archivists.org/glossary (accessed on October 17, 2014).