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Archival Research: Background Research

Background Research

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.

  • Gather the basic facts about your topic and familiarize yourself with the major themes and concerns of the day. 
  • Read books and articles for more in-depth coverage of the people, organizations, and events that are central to your research project.
  • Reference and secondary sources will help you decipher documents in archival collections.  Letters in a manuscript collection exchanged between people who knew each other long ago may mention other people, events, ideas, and opinions, but they probably won't explicitly define them.  Reference sources will come to the rescue.
  • Take a close look at the footnotes, bibliographies, and acknowledgements in reference and secondary sources.  They are gold mines for identifying primary sources. 
  • Keep a running list of the names (people and organizations), dates, keywords, subjects, themes, events, and places that come up in your research.  These will be your access points for finding primary sources. 
  • Knowing key names will enable you to recognize relevant sources when you encounter them.
  • Knowing key dates will enable you to navigate manuscript collections arranged in chronological order.
  • Background research will also help you position your own argument within the scholarly conversation.  
  • You can also use background sources to come up with a topic and for help developing your research question.

Browse the Library Stacks

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.

Catalog Search Tips

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"

Description and travel

Economic conditions
In literature
Personal narratives
Pictorial works
Politics and government
Social conditions
Social life and customs




(Source:  Oxford Guide to Library Research, 40-43.)

Biographical Sources

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.

General Reference Sources

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.

Historical Newspapers

Seek out newspapers contemporary to your research subject.  Read them to get a flavor for the time and place you are studying. 

  • Historical newspapers are great primary sources that can help you understand how a subject was viewed and understood at the time. They also fill in the record on people and topics you may not find in archival collections.
  • Don't forget the alternative press!  Many ideas that are accepted today were considered radical when they were first introduced. You'll find coverage of new or progressive ideas in radical publications before it appears in the mainstream media.

Conducting Genealogical Research Using Newspapers - NYPL Guide

Published Primary Sources

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.

A Note on Digitized Archives

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...