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