Doing Archival Research

Questions to Consider

  • Does the collection cover the time period in which you're interested?
  • How much material does the collection comprise? 
    Size may be noted in inches, linear feet, cubic feet, volumes, folders, reels, etc. The extent will give you an indication of how much time it will take for you to use the entire collection or a portion of it.
  • Where is the repository located? Can you get there easily? 
    If travel to the library is prohibitive, you may be able to request copies of documents from the collection.
  • How is the collection organized? 
    Pinpoint the portions of the collection--down to the exact boxes and folders--that you believe will be of most use to your project. Be prepared to interpret file names and to understand the collection's organizational patterns. Because files are ordinarily maintained in the archives according to how they were used during the author's lifetime you may find that your topic is not represented in the file titles with the words that you would use to describe your research.

Examples of Collection Guides

Collection descriptions, detailed inventories, and research guides can help you determine whether a particular collection will be useful for your research. These descriptions may be available through online catalogs, databases, research guides, or other finding aids. If an online guide is not available, request a hardcopy guide from the repository's curator.

Examples of guides:

Shaker Collection (Williams Special Collections)
Adelphic Union (Williams Special Collections)

Evacuees Research Guide (National Archives, UK)