Research Guides

Archival Research

The Process

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:

  1. Develop your research question
  2. Define your research needs
  3. Conduct background research
  4. Think about the kinds of sources you hope to find
  5. Search for and identify collections and repositories
  6. Read archival finding aids and collection guides
  7. Contact repositories
  8. Visit repositories and use collections
  9. Repeat steps as needed

Best Practices for Archival Research

  • Read widely in reference and secondary sources on your topic and the time period you are studying to inform your research in archives.
  • Look closely at the websites of archival repositories to learn about their collections, finding aids, and procedures.
  • Always contact an archival repository before you visit. 
  • Keep a running list of the relevant people, organizations, events, places, dates, and themes you discover in your reading and keep a research journal of the catalogs and databases you search and the keywords you use.  A research journal will help you stay organized.
  • Take careful, detailed notes when using unpublished materials.
  • Speak with library staff about your topic to fine-tune your research strategy and learn about related materials.
  • Archival research takes time.  Be sure to plan ahead.

Using Collections

Also see the Using Collections page in this guide for additional information and tips for making your research go smoothly.

Define Your Research Needs

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 scope and complexity of your project
    Are you writing a short paper or trying to uncover every possible source for your dissertation or book?
  • The amount of time you have to spend
    Is your project due in two weeks or do you have years to discover all the relevant resources that might exist?
  • The types of background sources you need and where you will find them
    Only in the library?  Online?  Via interlibrary loan?
  • Which repositories are likely to hold materials for you
    Local or far flung libraries?
  • Consulting a reference librarian for help planning your strategy
    You will find out about tools and tricks to make your search for materials more efficient and effective.

NYPL, Room 100, Including Card Catalogs

Image:  Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. "Room 100, including card catalogs" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1875. 

The Research Question

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

(SourcesThe Craft of Research; Learning Historical Research, Sources: Manuscripts and Archives)

Finding Research Inspiration in Manuscripts

If you are having trouble coming up with a research question that interests you, you can always start with the sources. 

  • To begin, find a manuscript collection on a broad topic of interest. To do that, choose a special library near you and browse the A-Z list of finding aids on its website.  Select a collection that looks interesting and read the finding aid.  Then, contact the library to make sure the collection is available and visit to look through the materials.
  • Read the documents actively.  Let the manuscripts spark your imagination and inspire questions.  What do the documents mean?  Where do they fit in with the bigger picture?  What more do you want to know about them? 
  • Use the manuscripts to help formulate a research question you want to answer.  Then, go back through the research steps, gathering background information and identifying other sources of evidence to answer your question.