Archival research can be overwhelming. Your research may focus on a single textual document, or it might require you to look at tens of boxes (if not more)! Whether your research is a long-term project (like a thesis or book), or a short-term project (like a paper or blog post), knowing the basics of how to do archival research before you start can save you time and energy later on.
Like any project, the key to success is planning! By following this step-by-step guide, you will learn how to best manage your visit to the archives.
1.1. Select a broad topic.
The first step for any research project is to select a topic. You may not know exactly what your final project will be when you begin (that is okay!), but it is a good idea to start with a topic which interests you. Ask yourself questions related to your topic:
1.2. Narrow your topic by doing background reading.
Background reading means looking up information about your topic from general sources before you begin your research as a way to learn more about your topic in broad strokes. These are sources which will give you a general overview of your topic and therefore will not be included in your bibliography or works cited.
Reference sources such as these can offer you more general information about a topic which will help you narrow the focus of your research. With these types of reference sources you may discover sub-topics within your research interest, major debates in the field about your topic, and key authors or persons related to your topic.
Learning as much as you can about a topic before you begin your archival research can be a very useful way to make the most of your time in the archives. Background reading will help you:
Being familiar with aspects of the topic, such as important dates or people, will save you time and energy when you encounter archival material related to it. By knowing these things before you encounter them in the archives, you will already have the crucial contextual information needed to make sense of the document that you are looking at.
For example, if you are reading a diary entry which includes a reference to an event which took place in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, it would be useful if you were already familiar with what that meant!
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.
Hypothesize where your research might lead.
Find a topic specific enough that you will be able to master it in the time that you have.
For more help on forming research questions, check out these guides:
3.1 Think about what sorts of archival sources might answer your research question or that might be related to your narrow topic.
Unfortunately, not every document that you can imagine actually exists -- it may never have been written, or it may have been lost or destroyed before it could be preserved in an archival repository. For example, not everyone keeps a diary. Of those that are kept, very few survive. Of these, even fewer end up in archival repositories!
Don't let this discourage you! It just means you need to think about what kinds of documents might help with your research rather than thinking a single source will answer your question.
3.2 When you have an idea of what kind of documents you are interested in finding, ask yourself:
Here are two examples of questions which might lead to archival research:
What is evidence?
No matter what your field is, academic research consists of making a claim and providing evidence which supports that claim. Researchers in different fields might have different words for this, such as 'argument' in place of 'claim' and 'data' in place of 'evidence'. The strength of your argument or claim rests on the strength of your evidence.
The critical question about your claim is: can you prove it? How do you know if you have collected enough sources?
When you have proven your claim.
To be acceptable as "proof," make sure that your information is verifiable and collaborated by other information. Sometimes record creators make mistakes! For example, a letter dated after the author's death is not evidence that their faked his death -- it's evidence that they were careless when writing dates!
4.1 Search for archives that hold material that is relevant to your research.
Archives have collecting mandates which govern what materials they are likely to acquire. As you explore archival websites and databases, make sure to look out for descriptions of their collecting policies and overviews of their collecting strengths. For example, the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections has a collection focus on Business, Commerce, Canadian Journalism, Canadian Publishing, the World Wars, Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Labour History, Literature and Writing, Music, Peace and Pacifism, and Politics and Radicalism.
Consider talking about your research with your instructor or an archivist, who might be able to make recommendations for where to look.
Additionally, there are online search tools for locating archival material. These may be specific to a repository, or they may be portals which index the holdings of multiple repositories. In many cases, individual repositories may have more accurate or up-to-date records than those found through search portals. Examples of search tools include:
AtoM (Access to Memory) is the online database of holdings located at McMaster University's William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections.
ARCHEION is the online catalogue of descriptions of records located in archives across Ontario.
Archives Canada is a portal for connecting users to archives across Canada. Includes links to provincial and territorial databases, online exhibits and digital holdings.
Archives Grid is a searchable database containing roughly 5 million descriptions of archival collections in 1,000 libraries, museums, historical societies and manuscript repositories around the world.
4.2 Keep in mind your limitations as a researcher.
You may discover the perfect archival material for your project held by an archives in another part of the country or maybe another part of the world! If you are limited by travel and time necessary to consult those documents, you may need to rethink your project based on what archives are within your geographic area.
5.1 Once you have found the archives you would like to visit, look at their finding aids before contacting them.
Archives will often make their "finding aids" available online. Reminder: a finding aid is like a roadmap to the archival material and will be the essential tool to help you navigate the archives. For more information, read the next page of this guide, How to Read a Finding Aid.
If the finding aid isn't available online, contact the archives and request more information about the material.
5.2 Make a list of the boxes and files that you are interested in looking at.
As you read the finding aid, you will hopefully find a number of boxes and files which look like they will be useful to your research. Keep a detailed list of what you are interested in.
It is possible that you will not have enough time to read everything that you thought might be of interest in the archives. When you have completed your list, ask yourself the following questions:
5.3 Review your list and contact the archives!
Once you have determined what material you would like to look at, you are ready to contact the archives.
6.1 Contacting the archives and scheduling a visit.
Archives will expect that in your email you introduce yourself, and list the specific boxes that you wish to access. Most archives will expect you to email them ahead of time (3-4 days in advance of your visit) when requesting material. If you are considering traveling for a visit to the archives, be in contact with the archives as soon as possible in order to make sure the material will be available for your visit. (Make sure the material is ready for you before you book a trip!)
It may also be helpful to write a general description of your research interest and your project. The archivist answering your email may have advice about your research, including the suggestion that the material you are requesting will not be as useful as you hope, or they might recommend something you had not thought of. Remember: archivists cannot do your research for you, but they may be able to provide helpful advice for your project.
Things to keep in mind:
(6.2 Requesting digital copies)
You may find archival material in an archives that you are unable to visit due to time and budget constraints. Many archives offer digital copying services.
Things to keep in mind when ordering digital copies: