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Archival Research: Getting Started

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 process are listed below.  Follow them in the order that makes sense for your project.

  1. Develop your research question
  2. Define your research needs
  3. Conduct background research
  4. Identify repositories and collections
  5. Read finding aids
  6. Contact repositories
  7. Visit repositories and use collections
  8. Repeat steps as needed

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.

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. Skim the finding aids and select a collection that looks interesting. Contact the library to make sure the collection is available, then visit to look through the collection. 
  • Read the documents actively.  Let the manuscripts "speak" to you 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 research question.

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)

Define Your Research Needs

Finding primary sources takes resourcefulness and stick-to-itiveness, but it can also be exciting and fun. Before you get started, take a moment to think about what you hope 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 paper due in two weeks or do you have years to discover all the relevant resources that might exist?)
  • Which background sources you need and where you will find them (Only in the library?  Online?  Via interlibrary loan?)
  • Which repositories are likely to relevant materials (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.)