Doing Archival Research: On and Offline

Categories: Data Collection, Other, Research, Research Design, Research Roles, Research Skills

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May logo- Finding Data in Documents and Datasets

In May we are focusing on Finding Data in Documents and Datasets. You will find the unfolding series through this link. Explore the whole 2021 series on stages of the research process: Finding the Question,  Choosing Methodology and MethodsDesigning an Ethical Study, and  Collecting Data from & with Participants.


When I was conducting an action research case study for my Masters thesis, I stumbled across historical antecedents to the project. One thing led to another, and I wound up doing extensive archival research in the Cornell University Library and the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Through archival research I found that long before our current debates about inclusion of diverse voices, the New York State Plays Project invited people from all walks of life to write about their own experiences and communities, then discuss the issues when plays were performed.

By archival research I mean taking letters out of envelopes to read the original handwritten materials. The most critically relevant material was in the personal correspondence, so I would not have found this information in published literature.

Writing about archival research now, I wondered: how might this kind of study be conducted today, given that so much historical material is available electronically? In a fortuitous full-circle, I was introduced to Elaine Angst, who was the Director of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections and University Archivist. This post and interview reflect what she shared.

Primary Sources: Physical or Digital?

In short, here is the answer to my overarching question about what is archival research like now? It is the same, and different. If I were studying the same collection, I would still need to go to Cornell and pore through boxes. However, I could use an online catalog and finding aid to focus my search.

On the other hand, if I were studying a different figure, one whose work drew the funding necessary to digitize the collection, I might be able to access and read the source materials online. Clearly, time and money are the deciding factor, and not every topic of interest to you also interests individuals or funding agencies who support such efforts.

Hear Elaine Engst explain the digital interface between physical and electronic archives in this recording.


Follow these links to see the examples we discussed:

Catalog entries:

Finding Aids:

Online Exhibition: Interpretative and related materials from other sources

Another example shows how visual content is cataloged. The Allan R. Holmberg Collection on Peru hasn’t been full scanned, but the photograph series and selected documents are available on an open-access Web site. Here’s a link to the catalog record, the finding aid and the Web site (in English or Spanish).

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