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 Methods, Designing 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.
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:
- Alexander Drummond: topic list, no access to digital versions
- Ezra Cornell: descriptive list, access to digital versions
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).
Relevant MethodSpace Posts
- Facebook Groups as Research Method
- The One Netnography Tool You Should Never Be Without: The Immersion Journal—Part 1 of 4
- Practical Tips for Getting Started with Harvesting and Analyzing Online Text
- Online Research: Analyze Talk
- Thinking about collecting qualitative data using digital methods? Introducing Tracking and Trawling