Background research paves the way for productive archival research. Use it to get an overview of your topic, to zero in on the details you need to find primary sources, and to help put archival materials in context.
Use the Library of Congress Classification system to find the call number for your subject area. Then, browse the general and reference shelves in the library to discover books on your topic.
Serendipity can lead you to titles you never thought to search for and enhance your research in unexpected ways.
Subdivisions added to LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) narrow broad topics and make it easier to zero in on relevant sources in a library catalog search.
For example, a search of the LCSH "New York (N.Y.)" in LC Authorities yields dozens of pages of subdivided headings related to NYC.
The chart below shows just a few of the common subdivisions you can add to a subject to narrow down results in a library catalog search.
E.g., "New York (N.Y.) -- Social life and customs"
Politics and government
Social life and customs
(Source: Oxford Guide to Library Research, 40-43.)
Since archival collections are arranged by provenance, a great way to find them is to identify people or organizations central to a topic and then read about them in biographical sources. Biographies will not only help you track down manuscript collections and other primary sources, they will help you put them in context.
Bibliographies will help you identify previous scholarship on a topic. Look for them in books,articles, reference source entries, and as stand-alone works on specialized topics.
References sources are a great place to begin your research. Use online and print reference titles for inspiration and to find topic overviews, definitions, dates, and facts that will ground your research.
Books on your topic can help you make sense of manuscript collections and lead you to other useful primary and secondary sources. Be sure to mine the footnotes, and bibliographies, and acknowledgements to learn which sources the author consulted and then track down the most promising ones for your own research.
Following are three sources useful for finding scholarly articles. The first focuses on U.S. history while the others are multi-disciplinary and great for research on a wide range of topics. Consult the research guides in your subject area for additional suggestions.
Seek out newspapers contemporary to your research subject. Read them to get a flavor for the time and place you are studying.
Published primary sources in print, on microfilm, or online (subscription databases or open web) can be extremely helpful.
Not only can you use them to access primary documents without having to visit the library that holds the original materials, but published editions are usually annotated as well, and offer not just the documents, but scholarship that puts them in context.
Every day, more archival material is digitized and made available online, and libraries such as The New-York Historical Society and The New York Public Library are steadily digitizing collections in their holdings. But they have a long way to go.
The NYPL, for example, currently holds 53,437 linear feet of documents in 9,669 separate archival collections, but has digitized just 158,847 pages of archival material to date.
And the National Archives, when asked whether their records are on the internet, replied: "Laid side to side, pages in the National Archives' holdings would circle the Earth over 57 times! Because of the cost to digitize such a volume of materials, only a small percentage is available for research online."
So remember, not everything is online...