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Archival research basics

In This Guide

Questions to ask yourself

As you start your research, you may find it helpful to ask the following questions to determine what types of documents to look for and where to find them.

  • Why might someone want to document your topic?
  • Who would be likely to have documented your topic? What types of people would have been around during an event and had the means to document it?
  • What types of documents would they have created?
  • Where might you be able to find those documents? Is there an archive that focuses on your topic, a particular location relevant to your topic, or the types of people?

Where to find archival resources

There are many different ways to find archival collections to help in your research. Archives provide access to information about their collections using different tools. The products of others' research can also help you find archival collections. Some sources for finding archival collections include:

  • Secondary sources. Books or websites about a particular topic can be great resources for finding archival collections. Check footnotes or end notes to find primary sources that authors used in their research.
  • Archives websites. Some archives make lists and descriptions of their collections, often called finding aids, available on their websites.  
  • Databases and library catalogs. Archives sometimes make their collections discoverable in dedicated archives databases  or library catalogs. 
  • Topic guides. Some archives create guides to collections related to specific topics.
  • Digital collections. The individual items in digital collections can lead you to larger collections on your topic.

Search terms

When looking for for archival sources the search terms you use are important. Some things to consider when thinking of terms to use in your search are:

  • Different words can be used for the same thing. Try searching using all of the different synonyms for your search terms.
  • The words we use to talk about various concepts change over time. Some of the words used in historical documents and reflected in archival descriptions may be different than the words we use today, and may even be considered offensive now.
  • If a term you are searching for is an acronym or initialism, try searching using the full name, and vice versa.

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