If you are writing a dissertation that requires you to investigate the past, you may need to undertake some archival research. Researching in an archive can be a fun process of discovery. It allows you to find primary sources that other scholars may not have examined, and it can make you feel closely connected to history. However, it can also be daunting for the first-time dissertation researcher, who might not know what to expect.

Plan Ahead

Learn as much as you can about the archive that you are visiting before you go. What sources do you want to look at? Do you need to sign up for a library card? Do you need to make an appointment? I’d advise contacting the archive ahead of time to let them know you’re interested in visiting, so that you can make sure the items you want to see are available. Finding out as much information as possible ahead of time will help you make sure the trip is productive and helpful for your dissertation.

Find the Right Archive

So, you have a dissertation topic, and you want to find some primary sources. But how do you figure out which archive might have them? Start by asking the librarians at your institution. They may be able to point you in the direction of useful archives. You can also ask other scholars which archives they’ve used: your dissertation advisor can be a big help in this regard. If your dissertation topic is about a specific location, look up libraries or historical societies in that area, and see if they have archives. Other useful resources include the National Archives’ listing of State Archives, and the Society for American Archivists’ website, which includes listings of archival organizations.

Investigate Online Finding Aids

Archives use a type of document called a finding aid to tell researchers what kinds of items and sources are available in their collections. The Society of American Archivists provides an annotated, sample finding aid that can help you learn how to read these documents. Many archives make their finding aids available online. For instance, the Online Archive of California includes finding aids from many different archives in the state of California. Many University archives and libraries include archival finding aids on their websites as well. If you can find online finding aids, use them to figure out which archival items you want to look at. Note that not all archives post their finding aids online – in some cases, you’ll have to visit in person, or contact an archivist to find out what their collections contain.

Befriend the Archivist

When you visit an archive, don’t be shy about asking for help. Archivists often have in-depth knowledge about the items in their collections, and they might be able to direct you to items that you didn’t even know existed! Let the librarian or archivist know what your dissertation topic is, and they might be able to help you locate relevant sources

Find Out the Rules

Archives aren’t like regular libraries. The material that you’ll find in archives is rare, and often very old. You might end up working with original, hand-written letters and manuscripts, old photos, or old newspaper clippings, all of which are extremely fragile. In order to protect their collections from wear-and-tear and from theft, archives have very strict rules about how you can use them and what materials you are allowed to use when you research.

Many archives will only allow you to take notes in pencil. Some will ask that you check your bag before entering the reading room. Some archives will allow you to take digital photos or make photocopies of items, and others won’t: this often depends on the copyright status of archival items. Find out as many of these rules in advance as you can, so that you’re well-prepared to work in your chosen archive.

Often, you’ll need to look at archival items in a special reading room. You will almost never be able to take them out of that room. Depending on the institution, you may only be allowed to work with one item at a time. You will typically have to sign out the documents that you are looking at with archive staff.

Take Plenty of Notes and Allow Plenty of Time

Sometimes, you may only have one opportunity to visit a particular archive. Perhaps it’s in another country, or is otherwise difficult for you to access. In that case, make sure you allow yourself enough time to take plenty of notes on the items that you are viewing.

If you’re visiting an archive for the first time, don’t panic! It can be a fun and educational experience that will let you access unique primary sources that will help your dissertation be the best it can be. The American Historical Association has more tips on preparing to do archival research, and the Society of American Archivists has a comprehensive guide.

Our PhD-level research services can help you with your dissertation research. Whether you need help working with primary sources or doing statistical analysis, we can work with you to make sure that your dissertation research is top-notch. A dissertation consultant can also help you devise a research strategy that works for your dissertation. And once you’re done with your research, a dissertation editor can make sure that all of the quotations and citations in your dissertation are formatted accurately.