Each research project is unique. And research itself is a process that will take you back and forth between primary, secondary, and reference sources, catalogs, databases, and other discovery tools.
The arc of a typical research project begins with a general topic of interest from which a research question is developed. Sources are found to answer the question and results are written up.
The basic steps in the archival research process are the following:
Before you start searching for sources, take a moment to think about what you need to accomplish with your research. Be sure to consider:
The authors of The Craft of Research devised a three-step formula you can use to develop research question worth answering. Without a good question, you'll just be gathering data. Fill in the blanks to focus your efforts and build a research question of significance.
1. Topic: I am studying ______________
2. Question: because I want to find out what / why / how ____________
3. Significance: in order to better understand ______________
N.B. Since the research process is rarely linear, you may find that once you arrive in an archival repository and start looking at collections, your research question might change. Historian and University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon says:
"That's because you get a better sense of what sorts of arguments the documents can support, and because manuscript collections are full of weird and wonderful things that insist on being explored. Make sure you care about the question you go in with enough that you won't immediately abandon it after reading the first document. But don't be afraid to let your question transform itself in dialogue with the documents. Whatever you do, keep track of this thought process on paper. New questions or discarded ones could represent future projects."
Learn More: The Importance of a Good Research Question
If you are having trouble coming up with a research question that interests you, you can always start with the sources.