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A Guide to Archival Research

Introduction: Digital Archives

Archives and libraries have been digitizing items in their collections and making them available to the public. However, it is important to note that not all archival material can or should be digitized. Digitizing material is an expensive and time-consuming process; furthermore, a digital object is more susceptible to deterioration and damage over time than a physical one, unless careful measures are taken. Furthermore, many records, particularly recent ones, might have restrictions which disallow them from being digitized or made available online.  

While archives and libraries are eager to provide access to the incredible resources in their holdings, there are many reasons why not everything can be available online.

This guide will briefly review the archival research process as applied to digital archives and provide a brief list of useful digital resources for online research.

Archival Research Process (Online!)

The first steps of archival research are basically the same as in-person research. Before you begin to look at digital archival documents, it is important to have a narrow topic, a research question, and an idea about what kinds of sources that you hope to find. 

1. Narrow your topic.

1.1. Select a broad topic. 

1.2. Narrow your topic by doing background reading. 

2. Develop your research question.

2.1. Develop a research question by exploring questions related to your topic. 

2.2. Determine a question that you hope to answer through your research. 

3. Think about the kinds of sources you hope to find.

3.1 Think about what sorts of primary sources might answer your research question or that might be related to your narrow topic.​

3.2 When you have an idea of what kind of documents you are interested in finding, ask yourself:​

  • Are these documents likely to be available online?

4. Search for and identify archives.

4.1 Search for archives that hold material that is relevant to your research.

You may want to search archival databases such as ARCHEION: Ontario's Archival Information NetworkArchives Canada, and Archive Grid. Keep in mind that these databases will link you to archival descriptions. These descriptions may or not link to the digital objects which you will need to conduct your online archival research.  

The difference between an archival description and a digital object:


Archival description

Information used to identify and represent an archival resource. 

Example of an archival description: 

Bernard Freeman Trotter.
First Accrual. 1911-1924. -- 40 cm of textual records.
Series 1: Correspondence. -- 1916-1917. -- 5 cm of textual records ... 


Digital object 

A digitized copy of a physical archival item or a born-digital archival item.

Example of a digital object:

Handwritten letter, with letterhead "On Board RMS "Baltic", Mar. 24, 1916. Dear Folks...

(APA): Trotter, Bernard Freeman. Letter from Bernard Trotter to his parents. 24 March 1916. Box 1, File 1. Bernard Freeman Trotter fonds. William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University Library. Macrepo:73693. Available at:

The following is a list of resources which can be used for online archival research:

The British Library

Canadiana Online and Héritage 

DPLA: Digital Public Library of America 

Internet Archive 

Library of Congress Digital Collections

World Digital Library

5. Browse and identify archives.

When you have identified the archives which you would like to investigate, browse their pages and look for their digital databases.

Note that not every archives or library has digital copies of their material.

Follow the best practices of online research:

  • Write a list of search terms, eg. “WWI” + “Great War” + “Nursing"
  • Keep track of what sites you have visited and what search terms you have used
  • Evaluate your sources: ask yourself, who created this and for what purpose?

6. Organize and keep track of your citations. 

Keep notes on the relevant information about your sources as you research. This information will be important for when you are citing your sources. Remember to include the links and identification numbers of any digital object that you are citing. 

Example (APA):
Student Association to end the War in Vietnam. (ca. 1968). [Poster]. Canadian student social and political organizations collection, William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections (Box 7, File 7), McMaster University Library, Hamilton, ON. Macrepo:5609. Available at

Digital Archival Resources @ Mac

General Archives Material

Rare Books

Bertrand Russell Archives

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