How do I make sense of archival listings?

Contributor: B. Zakarin, Office of Fellowships,
Posted: 2011

Archives and libraries are often closely connected.  In fact, Northwestern Archives is part of Northwestern University Library.  Still, archives work quite differently than libraries.  Archives primarily house unpublished documents (primary sources) that are unavailable anywhere else.  If you look in the bibliographies of books, you will see categories for “archival sources” or “unpublished sources.”  The references in those sections point to archives—big and small, public and private—that hold one-of-a-kind historical documents.  Keep track of any archives listed in bibliographies (or the footnotes of journal articles) that you encounter while conducting legwork.  The records at these archives might be valuable for your thesis.

Archives are different from the library materials you are familiar with and can baffle the novice researcher.  The manuscripts and organizational records that archival repositories contain are as diverse and unique as the person or group that created them.  Thus, these primary sources are not catalogued or organized the same way that books are.  To work with archival materials, you need to ask the following:

-How are documents organized?

-Who can help?

-What are finding aids?

-How does someone plan archival research?

Some answers to these questions should embolden you to expand your research vision beyond the friendly confines of Northwestern.  In fact, you may even learn that some primary sources are available at Northwestern University Library in a physical format (e.g., microfilm), through one of the Library’s subscriptions to electronic resources for historical research, or directly from an archive’s website.


Think of archivists as a type of referral service.  They know the collections that they organize.  The better they understand your topic and what you are looking for, the more likely they are to identify sources that relate to your thesis.  Thus, you should be ready to share your initial keywords and subjects.  Once you make a first match between your research questions and archival holdings, an archivist can then bring new materials to your attention:  “If you liked this particular document, then you’ll probably like…”

Such dialogue is essential because you ordinarily cannot browse through archival materials the way you might roam library stacks.  Archival collections are generally “paged”—brought to you at a desk in a reading room from secure shelving areas.  After all, many archival records are carefully filed single pieces of paper that have grown delicate with age.  Archival collections usually consist of boxes filled with paper—and not neatly typed 8.5x11 sheets.  Each box can contain hundreds of documents such as handwritten diaries, postcards, telegrams, or faded mimeographs—not to mention numerous non-textual formats.

Assistant University Archivist Janet Olson and Project Archivist Jason Nargis have created an online video tutorial to introduce prospective thesis writers to Northwestern’s rich archival collections and de-mystify the process of planning archival research.  Even if you plan to visit far-away archives, this tutorial will familiarize you with the fundamentals of working with archival materials and how to help archivists help you.  Access the tutorial at


Researchers are often driven by questions like this: “How did people in period X think about issue Y?”  Unfortunately, archival collections reflect the unique nature of their creators, not the potential research needs of scholars.  The answers are not cut-and-dried; rather, historians must tease them out of the documents—this is what makes archival research exciting and full of unexpected surprises.  Turning your questions into an archival research agenda requires both imagination and an understanding of what kinds of documents might provide clues and yield useful evidence.  A series of scrapbooks from Northwestern sorority members in the 1950s, for example, might provoke a new interpretation of the era’s gender relations.  An archivist can help you connect the dots between your questions, the documents that might offer answers, and the location of those documents.  Since you likely do not yet know what documents exist to advance your research, try to imagine your ideal primary source:

-What kinds of sources would be pieces of your puzzle?  Diaries?  Internal memoranda?

-Who would have produced these sources?  Individuals?  Organizations?

-What issues or events would be addressed in these sources? 

The “smoking gun” sources you dream up probably do not exist.  Of course, historical research would be far less exciting and challenging if they did.  Still, if you can imagine such primary sources to answer your research questions, then you can give archivists a good hint for leading you to useful materials.


Archives generally publish finding aids—similar to tables of contents or indexes to collections (some of which are even available online), but these aids have limits.  They do not describe every item in a collection; and, they only give date ranges and general descriptions that help researchers determine if, and in what box, useful material exists.  When archives acquire new collections, archivists must try to anticipate how future researchers might want to use these collections.  Therefore, it is crucial to communicate with archivists—especially early on, when they are indispensable allies for identifying collections and specific primary sources that can shape a research agenda.  These details will be important for your research proposal.

Remember these final warnings when planning your archival research agenda:

-not all collections have a finding aid or a catalog record

-not all of an archive’s collections are listed online

The absence of a relevant collection in a likely archive’s website is not evidence that the collection does not exist.  Simply describe your topic to an archivist, note where you have already looked, and ask whether useful documents might be stored in a different collection.  Once you identify a relevant collection, an archivist may be able to lead you to related collections or other materials (such as periodicals or photographs) that are not described.