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Special Collections & Archives Guide

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

How to Use Archives and Primary Sources in Your 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:

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:

Examples of Research Projects Using A Single Document from the Samuel Switzer Collection

The following examples demonstrate how a single archival document can be used to create innovative and fascinating research projects in multiple disciplines. 

About the Collection: The Samuel Leyens Switzer Collection contains the correspondence, publications, photographs, maps, and memorability of Samuel Switzer, a college student who left school to serve as a soldier in World War I. Because Samuel was in college when he went to war, students tend to engage on a more personal level with this collection. We selected the following document from this collection to use in a variety of example research projects.

About the Selected Document: On December 24th, 1918 Samuel wrote a letter to his mother about how he and his fellow soldiers were celebrating the Christmas holiday in France during World World I. Samuel was Jewish, but his division and the locals they were staying with observed Christmas or "X-Mas" as he refers to it.

In the letter, Sam provides detailed information about how he and his fellow soldiers celebrated Christmas in an Old Opera House after spending months on the front lines of the war. Sam describes how they chopped down a tree and strung it with tinsel and "strange" holiday decorations including Zeppelins and U-Boats. Sam also tells his mother that they will receive small gifts from the YMCA, but expresses his frustration that he and his fellow soldiers have not received more support during the war and are "strapped" for money and provisions.

Traditional Research Paper Topic Ideas:

  • Write a research paper about how Sam and his fellow soldiers observed holiday traditions during WWI, and how those traditions were affected by the war. Research secondary sources about how soldiers on both sides of the war observed Christmas, and how it changed over the course of the war.
  • Write an essay about the YMCA's involvement during World War I, including their role in providing provisions and support to Sam's troop on the front line. Research secondary sources about food and provisions during the war, and the role of the YMCA in the war effort.
  • Explore what it meant for Sam Switzer to serve as Jewish American soldier during World War I. Research secondary sources about religion in America and the military during World War I, and think about how Sam's personal experience can add to the discussion and understanding of the topic.
  • In his letter, Sam mentions the "Lady of the House" provided Christmas decorations to the troops. Look at the context clues in the letter to identify who the lady might be, and read secondary sources about the role women and families of America's allies played in housing and supporting soldiers during the war.

Geographic Information System (GIS) Project

  • Combine this letter with other letters and maps in the Switzer Collection to track and create a map of Sam's troop movement during the war. Contribute to existing data about American troop movements to help provide a better understanding of World War I. 
Modeling and Simulation Engineering
  • Create a 3-D printed model of the Old Opera House, including the tree, decorations, and other details mentioned in the letter. Try to make everything to scale as described by Sam. 
Health, Mental Health, and Medicine
  • Read through Sam's letters about the food, medicine, and medical treatment soldiers experienced during the war. Write a paper about the impacts of nutrition, disease, injury, and/or hygiene on soldiers during World War I. 
  • Research the impacts of injuries or biological warfare on troops during World War I and the impacts it had on soldiers. 
  • Analyze how Sam talks about injuries and illness to his mother and the mental health implications of returning from war.

Visual Arts 

  • Create a work of art (painting, drawing, etc.) depicting the solider's Christmas observance in the Old Opera House, including the tree, people, and decorations.
  • Create a work of art that captures the emotions Sam expresses in his letters

Performing Arts

  • Write and stage a play or short video of the Christmas observance, including details you discovered in the letter
  • Turn Sam's letter into an acting monologue 
  • Compose a poem or spoken word composition about Sam's experiences, focusing on the emotions and frustration Sam feels on the front line.

Creative Writing​​​​​ Topics

  • Write a play or short story depicting the Christmas celebration, including details provided by Sam's letter. 
  • Compose a response to Sam's letter form his mother
  • Compose a series of letters as yourself responding from a future perspective 
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