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Special Collections & Archives Research Guide

Learn how to access, use and experiment with primary resources in the learning laboratory!

How to Use Archival Documents in Research

Archival research can be fun and rewarding! The following resources will help you feel more confident about incorporating primary sources and ​special collections and archives into your research and class projects:

YouTube Videos about Student Research

Five Easy Steps to Understanding an Archival Document

In order to use a document, photograph, map, or other archival item in your research, you first need to analyze your document. Treat your document like a clue you are investigating following these easy steps:

1. Observe the Document:

Notice physical characteristics which may convey important clues to understanding the document. For example, you maybe be able to estimate roughly when a document was created by noting the type of paper, style of handwriting, or methods of printing used. You may also be able to determine an item’s intended purpose by looking at its size, or whether it was meant to be treasured or thrown away by assessing the quality of its materials.

2. Read the Document

It may seem obvious, but make sure to read your document from start to finish. Observe any images, doodles, or handwritten notes that may be present. If you are using a photograph or other visual material, try and identify the people, places, and things in the image. Use clothing, hairstyles, fonts, and other methods of deduction to help you make educated guesses. Summarize what you read by writing a brief description of your document.

3. Ask Questions

Often documents will raise more questions than they answer, and that's okay! These questions can help you form and expand your research topic. Ask yourself questions about your document, including:

  • When was it created?
  • Who wrote/created it? 
  • What was its original purpose? 
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What kind of source (document, artifact, etc.) is it?
  • What feelings does it invoke?
  • What is the point of view?
  • Is there any visible bias?
  • Does it raise any questions/concerns?
  • How does it fit into the larger topic of study?
  • What is interesting/important/confusing about it?
  • What else do you still need to know to understand your document?

4. Make Connections

Combine what you learned during the first three steps to help you better understand your document. Think about how your document helps the tell the story of your research topic. What new questions did your document raise that you want to explore in your research? 

5. Use the Following Question and Answer Worksheets

You can use the following forms to help you answer questions about your document:

How to Read Old Handwriting

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