Module 3: Archives and Historical Research

Shelley Rose

The purpose of archives

Historical sources are everywhere. Archives provide institutional support for the preservation, curation, and accessibility of archival materials. For instance, it is much easier for a researcher to visit an institutional archive than to read a historical agents’ personal papers in their relatives’ living room. Institutions also typically have more resources to care for and preserve old or otherwise damaged artifacts.

Think about your experiences with historical documents or artifacts. Were the documents digitized? Did you see an artifact in a museum or library? Consider this 2019 reflection by historian Marc Reyes ,“Why do Historians Still Have To Go To Archives?” in Contingent Magazine Note that Reyes wrote before the COVID-19 pandemic. Archival access has become more complicated since March 2020 due to social distancing, institutional restrictions on travel, and staffing issues.

Archival Organization and Agendas

When historians visit an archive, they have already done a substantial amount of research. They have:

  1. read the secondary scholarship by other historians in their field(s). There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Scholars who have written about your topic will have useful information in their footnotes about which archival sources exist and where they are located.
  2. developed a research question based on their assessment of the historiography and potential archival sources.
  3. consulted the finding aids available for the archival collections that are relevant for the field.
  4. contacted the archivists at these institutions.
  5. created a research plan and made a schedule for visiting the archive, including an estimate of how much time will be needed, if an invitation, permission, or reference is required, etc..
  6. applied for any available funding to support the research trip. Some archives even have funds available for scholars to encourage them to work in the collections.

Activity 1

Think about your research interests and be prepared to discuss the following.

  1. What 2 or 3 subdisciplines of history does your topic fit?
  2. What archives or collections do historians in these disciplines consult?
  3. Pick one archive or collection and practice your historical thinking. Who created it? Where is it located? When was the collection started? What is in the collection?


Reading the Room: What do archivists, historians, and other researchers find in archives and how do they find it? (or make it findable in the case of archivists)

Exploring the Archives

Archives, Digital Sources, Digitization, and Organization (section under construction)

Digital Archival Collections, Projects & Finding Aids (under construction)

Digital Collections



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