History: Archival Research

Use this guide to find information about topics in History

Treasure Hunting

When working with primary sources it's important to understand that you may not be able to find a clear, definitive answer to every question. However, using contextual clues, you may be able to estimate the answer.

For example, many archival photographs are not dated. You may be able to deduce the decade based on things like: clothing styles, buildings present or architectural style, technology shown, etc. The decade then could lead you to another set of resources that may have the exact answer (perhaps the photograph is used as publicity in a particular issue of the newspaper!) It's equally likely that you may never find the definitive answer. That's all part of the challenge!

Where to Search for Archival Resources

Sometimes the best place to start when looking for archival resources is to first think about the topic or person you are researching and the related geographic location. (For example, if you are interested in pioneers, you're more likely to find materials in the Western states where pioneers lived). Most archives are held in educational institutions, businesses, historical societies, and museums. Thinking about nearby institutions may help you find collections. Keep in mind that not all archival materials are digitized and available online! 

Searching in Archives

  • What question am I asking? What do I want to know?
  • Can I identify related search terms? (This may help you find other sources)
    • Ex: A gold miner's correspondence might yield terms such as: Gold Rush, California, Eureka, gold mining, gold mines, lode deposits, claim records, and more
  • Will I be able to find secondary sources related to this item?
    • Many items in archives are not about famous people, so searching for someone's name may not yield results, while searching by related topics probably will

Analyzing Archival Sources

Initial Questions

  • What are your first impressions?
  • What type of document is it? (Photograph, poster, letter, newspaper article, etc.)
  • If it is handwritten, is the handwriting legible?
  • For documents: Are there any unique physical characteristics? (Print type, notations, stamps, watermarks, etc.)
  • For photographs: What catches your eye first? What people, objects, places or activities do you see?
  • For posters: What are the main colors? Are there symbols? If so, are they easy  to interpret? Is the message primarily visual, verbal, or both?

Analyzing the Document

  • Who created this item?
  • What is the context for the document?
    • When was it created?
    • Where was it created?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What does the language tell us about the document, its author(s), and its audience?
    • What is the "voice" of the document?
    • Is there any specific vocabulary or slang used? Slogans? Idioms?
  • Why was the document written? For what purpose was this item created?
  • What does the document tell me about the society or person who produced it?
  • Why is the document significant? (The "so what" question)
  • Can I learn anything from the way the document was produced and/or distributed? (Ex: a mass printed pamphlet versus a unique poster)
  • Are there larger national or international movements that are reflected in this document?

Looking Further

  • What questions does the item raise?
  • Where could I look to answer those questions? (What additional resources do I need?)
Subjects: History
  • Last Updated: May 23, 2024 2:18 PM
  • URL: https://libguides.gvsu.edu/history