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A Guide to Archival Research


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.

Helpful tip: Not all academic research requires archival research. You may find that your research question can be answered without a visit to the archives. If you are unsure if your project will involve archival research, talk with your supervisor or instructor.

The Archival Research Process

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: 

  • What interests you about the topic?
  • What would you like to learn about it?
  • What do you already know about the topic? What aspects of it would you like to know more about?

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. 

Examples of background reading sources: Your course textbooks, popular newspaper/magazine/online articles, Youtube videos, and encyclopedias. (This includes Wikipedia! WIkipedia is an excellent tool for background reading on a topic but remember that it is crowd-sourced and not academically fact-checked. Other online encyclopedias include: the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

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:

  • become familiar with the basic information about the topic, including its concepts, controversies, and historical context;
  • learn the names of people related to the topic;
  • decode some of the jargon related to the topic;
  • possibly find sources by following the background sources' footnotes or bibliography.

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!

Helpful tip:   Keep your research focus narrow and flexible for a successful archival experience. If your focus is too broad, you might find yourself with far too much material to go through. If you are too inflexible with your topic, you may be disappointed if you cannot find material related to your topic. Be prepared to change your topic during your research by adapting to the material that is available. 

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

  • Ask yourself open-ended questions about your topic. The "how" and "why".
  • Consider the "so what?" What is the significance of your topic?
  • Get creative. What would you like to learn?

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

  • ​Is your question clear?
  • Is your question specific? (Can it be answered by your project?)

Hypothesize where your research might lead.

  • Is your question answerable? 
  • Are the resources which might answer your question available?

Find a topic specific enough that you will be able to master it in the time that you have. 

  • Would an exploration of your topic be appropriate for the required length your project? Would it take an entire book to adequately answer?
  • If you have a deadline for your project, do you think you can learn what you need to know and completing your project within that deadline. 
Helpful tip: 

Be prepared to revisit your research question throughout the process. 

As you will find, the archival research process can be challenging. You may often discover that the information that you have is not the information that you originally wanted! The most important part of good research is to follow what the evidence says, not what you want it to say.


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.

  • Would you find relevant information in someone's correspondence?
  • In someone’s diary?
  • In a historical newspaper?

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:

  • Who would have created the documents that might inform my question, and for what purpose?
  • In what context might these documents have originated? Am I looking for official documents, like government records, or for the personal documents of ordinary people?
  • Where might these documents be now? Are there repositories which specialize in the types of documents I might need to access?

Here are two examples of questions which might lead to archival research:

Research question #1

What was the experience of Canadian soldiers during World War I?

Research question #2

What happened during the trial of civil rights activist and icon, Viola Desmond?

What type of document might help answer this question?

  • Government report
  • Historical newspaper
  • Soldiers' letters from the front


There are several potential sources for this question but the best might be soldiers' letters from the front. 

The William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University has a collection of soldiers letters, which are described here.

The letters of Gordon William Parkinson (1898-1918), a Canadian soldier who fought in World War I, have been digitized by McMaster and are available here.

What type of document might help answer this question?

  • Historical newspaper
  • Viola Desmond's diary
  • Court documents from the trial


There are several potential sources for this question. Unfortunately, some of these sources, like "Viola Desmond's diary," do not exist!

The document that might best answer the research question is the court documents from the trial. 

By law, court documents are archived in government archives. Because the trial occurred in Nova Scotia, the documents are held by the Nova Scotia Archives.

They have been digitized and can be found here.


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 at McMaster

AtoM (Access to Memory) is the online database of holdings located at McMaster University's William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections. 

ARCHEION: Ontario's Archival Information Network 

ARCHEION is the online catalogue of descriptions of records located in archives across Ontario.

Archives Canada 

Archives Canada is a portal for connecting users to archives across Canada. Includes links to provincial and territorial databases, online exhibits and digital holdings.

Archive Grid 

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.

  • You may also have the option of looking at archival material that is available digitally through the website of the archives of your choice. Check out the Accessing Archives Online section of this guide to learn more about digital archival research.
  • Another option is to investigate if the archives of your choice is able to make digital copies of archival material. Learn more about this process on the 'Contact the Archives' (Step #6) page of this guide.

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.

Helpful tip: This list will be a very important document during your research. You will be able to use it to keep track of the documents which you have looked at as well as the documents you haven't. Knowing what you have already seen will help you to avoid having to retrace your steps!


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:

  • How much time will I need to go through this material? (Be careful: archival research always takes longer than you think!)
  • How many visits to the archives will it take me to look at all of the material?
  • Which of these boxes will be the most likely to have the information that I am looking for? (Hint: Look at these ones first!)

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: 

  • Archival material is not always available on-site. It may take a few days for the archives to get the material prepared for you. That is why it is always a good idea to email a few days in advance of your visit. 
  • Archival material may be subject to access restrictions. Be aware of any possible access restrictions which would be listed in the archival finding aid. If the material you are interested in researching is restricted, you will not be able to look at it. 
    • Why might an archives have restrictions? In some cases, archival material contains personal information about the creator or a third-party. By law or by agreement with the donor of the material, this information must be kept confidential until a specific date.
  • Archives are typically only open standard business hours (i.e. Monday to Friday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm). Don't expect to visit after hours or on the weekend.

(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:

  • There will be a fee. Pay attention to the size of the request and consider your budget.
  • There may be copyright restrictions. The archives may refuse your copy request if copying violates a copyright or other restriction.
  • You will have to sign a copy agreement which states that the copy is being made for your own research and will not be duplicated or transferred to others.
  • Digital scans may not be possible in cases where the material is fragile and if the process of scanning will threaten its integrity. The staff will assess the condition of the item prior to scanning. 
For archival research visits to the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University: 
Please book an appointment using the Materials Request Form
When requesting archival material, please identify the title of the fonds or collection and the box numbers as listed in the finding aids. For example, "Vera Brittain fonds, Boxes 34 to 36, and 40". 


Digital copies at William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster University:

When requesting digital copies of archival material, please fill out the form found at the following link: Copy Request Form. 

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