Guidance for doing archival research

Archival collections are typically considered the preserve of historians. Yet, qualitative researchers can make use of archival collections to supplement ongoing research, explore methodological issues, or conduct a secondary analysis of archived data sets. But how might one go about entering the archives?  This question is addressed by the book: The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences. Authored by four feminist scholars with extensive experience working in archival collections in multiple countries – Niamh Moore, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley and Maria Tamboukou –(Moore, Salter, Stanley, & Tamboukou, 2017), The Archive Project provides theoretical and methodological guidance without slipping into prescription. The first chapter provides an overview of theoretical considerations in doing archival research, and explains concepts used in later chapters. The authors do a good job of explaining abstract terms, including genealogy and genealogical analysis (which involves tracing the “connections and disconnections between different archives, and archival practice and the consequences of these for understanding any given archive”) (p. 16); heterotopia and heteropics (applied to thinking about archives, heterotopia provides the possibility for “ambiguous spaces” that are peripheral, and “within which the dominant is disrupted and its hegemony undermined”, p. 17); “rhythmanalysis” (used to examine the “rhythms of social spaces and their effects on the subject, including the researcher”, p. 18); and the “archival imaginary” (ways in which the archive might be reimagined in the archival turn, p. 19). The “archival sensibility” speaks to the development of four approaches to doing archival research that encompass (1) rethinking “provenance” (i.e., the ownership of materials and the records of how they came to the archive), and “new routes and new forms of collection” (p. 19); (2) expansion of the idea of what an archive is; (3) exploration of the practicalities involved in doing archival work; and (4) envisioning digital formats as “remaking” archival materials (p. 20).

Chapter 2, authored by Liz Stanley, offers practical strategies involved in “archigraphics”, or “writing the archive that researchers can use in approaching archives. With examples drawn from Stanley’s work in multiple archival projects, the strategies (e.g., re-writing, mapping, scoping and skimming) work to assist researchers in producing the “archive of the archive”. Chapter 3 is authored by Maria Tamboukou, who takes up the topic of narrativity in the archive. Here Tamboukou was working in a collection in the New York Public Library to do with women’s trade unionists in the garment industry. Andrea Salter authors chapter 4, which draws on her own work on the Mass Observation Project conducted in the U.K., along with her work on Olive Schreiner’s letters (which have been made available digitally at Salter describes reading backward in navigating these very large and complex collections. For anyone working with large data sets, reading the approaches taken to sampling for the Mass Observation project will be informative. Yet how one samples from another project may vary significantly – as becomes clear in Salter’s description of the Schreiner archives. Niamh Moore discusses community archives in the Feminist Webs project in the U.K. This chapter addresses questions to do with how communities can engage in archival projects; and how stakeholders address the very real tasks of where to house, and how to catalog, organize and index collections. The final chapter in the book draws together threads found throughout the book. These include the ideas of the archive as an institution, the archive as a project, and the archive as a process. The authors conclude the book with an epilogue which reflects on archival research and their collaborative writing.

In sum, the book provides answers to the questions: What is an archive? How do archives come to be? How might researchers in the social sciences approach archival research? What does one do? Because the authors have undertaken archival research in numerous collections all over the world, the answers to these questions are not simple or clear. The authors demonstrate a deep knowledge of related theories in history and archival studies and have a lot to offer theoretically and practically. The book also considers difficult questions about temporality, and how we read the past from the present, and how research processes are impacted when archived data are archived via different modes (e.g., digital, microfiche).

I found this book intriguing and marked numerous cited works to check out of my own library. Many of the archival collections have been in part digitized, so readers from all over the world can access some of the source documents described in the text.

Kathy Roulston


Moore, N., Salter, A., Stanley, L., & Tamboukou, M. (2017). The archive project: Archival research in the social sciences. London & New York: Routledge.


4 thoughts on “Guidance for doing archival research

  1. Yes! Archival data sources are so often overlooked for social and especially qualitative research, but can be an amazing resource. This book will hopefully make more researchers comfortable with using qualitative data. I feel there is a prestige associated with collecting your own dataset, when existing ones may actually be a better fit.

    The other aspect of this debate which I’ve written about here, is considering archiving your own anonymized qualitative data (, so that others can benefit from it.


    1. Thanks for the link to your blogpost Daniel. This is really interesting. I have just finished reading:

      Corti, L., Van den Eynden, V., Bishop, L., & Woollarrd, M. (2014). Managing and sharing research data: A guide to good practice Los Angeles: Sage.

      This book is invaluable for thinking about setting up projects in a way that they might be archived for others. Lots to think about!


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