Examining the archives

This year I have been involved in a program that introduces faculty to archival collections at my institution, the University of Georgia (UGA). I have been learning about how archival collections are organized and catalogued, how to locate information that is useful for research purposes, and what to do next. I have a lot to learn!

At first thought, archives might be associated with old and rare books and documents. There are certainly many aged documents and books in the collection at my institution (and even a Babylonian tablet that is 4,000 years old). It is very impressive to enter the cooled, temperature-controlled vaults in which many of these documents, artifacts and books are preserved. Archival collections, however, can include any number of other forms of material culture. This includes photos, paintings and art work, music scores, audio- and video-recordings. Audiovisual archivists digitize older analog formats such as videotape that are fragile, and increasingly lack playback equipment since they are no longer in wide use. These digital copies become the chief way that viewers access these older analog formats.  Depending on rights access, archivists at UGA provide these digitized materials to users via a link to a streaming file. Also, a significant amount of materials coming into the archives is born-digital (e.g., electronic mail and so forth).

At my institution, one exhibit that drew on a donated collection from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (formerly located in Macon, Georgia) included the physical door from the B52s’ famed song “Love Shack.” Another exhibit that explored the contribution and development of Foxfire a heritage center and museum in North Georgia, included examples of early crafts (woodwork, spinning, dying and quilting) as well as audio-recorded folk music.

How do collections come to be housed in archives? There many routes taken for a collection to find its way into an archives. One of the collections I have been examining was donated by a bank after a production company making a documentary film went broke prior to project completion. This extensive collection includes information about the interviews conducted for the film as well as production notes. Although a film was produced and is included in the collection, it was not aired extensively. Other collections are donated when people die or retire from public positions (e.g., politicians). Sometimes former faculty members donate papers and research libraries that include all sorts of rare manuscripts and related artifacts. Since archival collections may specialize in particular sorts of materials, materials may also be purchased from collectors and at auctions.

What kinds of questions may be asked of documents and material artifacts? The Library of Congress in the United States provides analysis tools for students working with different types of documents and artifacts. See for example, the teacher’s guides and analysis tools made available.

Once you have located documents and artifacts related to your research interests, you can easily adapt questions provided by the Library of Congress. For example, I have adapted these questions for use in an introductory qualitative methods course:

  • Who are the author/s or creator/s of these documents/artifacts?
  • For what audience were these documents written/artifacts created?
  • Who are the present audience/s of these documents/artifacts?
  • Who are other potential audience/s?
  • What was the purpose of these documents/artifacts?
  • What kinds of topics are included in these documents/artifacts?
  • What kinds of identities (and of whom) are produced in these documents/artifacts?

We used a set of documents from a digitized archival collection from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage relating to the life of American singer-song-writer, Woodie Guthrie (1912-1967). Another set of archival resources could easily be used, however. These questions are informed by those provided by Silverman (2011) and Prior (2003).

  1. Consider the letters as “situated products.” What changes have been made to them since the date of writing?
  2. What do readers need to know in order to make sense of these letters?
  3. What did the writers seem to take for granted about the reader/s?
  4. What was taken for granted by the authors of the letters?
  5. What do you observe about the topic of the letters?
  6. What can you make of the original purpose and function of the letters?
  7. Are there any indications that the authors were writing for audiences other than one another? What evidence do you have for your answer?
  8. What may be observed about how the letters were originally written?
  9. Who were the original readers of the letters?
  10. Who were the writers of the letters?
  11. Describe the “document collection”.
    • How have the documents been transformed from the “original” writing?
    • What has changed as a result?
  12. Who are the potential audiences for these documents now?
  13. What aspects of the writer’s life are made visible in this particular selection of documents? What aspects are invisible?
  14. What “identities” are constructed in this set of documents?

For teachers of qualitative researchers who would like to integrate documents and material culture derived from archival collection into methods courses the following website is very helpful: Teacharchives.org

There is much more to learn about using archival collections for the purposes of research. For example, I am learning that my searches operate differently than I have been used to, since collections are usually named and organized to preserve the original collection’s organization. This means that the only way to learn about what is in a particular collection is to spend time with the materials – viewing video, listening to audio-recordings, or examining original documents.

Archival collections provide a wealth of material for research purposes. I hope that you will consider how these sorts of collections might be used to generate new research questions about the topics that you wish to examine. If you’ve used archives in your qualitative studies, please share how you have found these help in your research in the comments section below.

Kathy Roulston wishes to thank Chuck Barber of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library for information included in this post, as well as Jill Severn of the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies for reviewing an earlier version of this post and providing helpful clarifications. 



Prior, L. (2003). Using documents in social research. Los Angeles: Sage.

Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data (4th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.


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