A beginner’s guide to conducting archival research

Archives preserve records from what has gone before to ensure accountability among leaders, to record what has happened in the past, and to preserve people’s cultural identities and heritage. In our book Exploring the archives: A beginner’s guide for qualitative researchers (2021), Kathleen deMarrais and I introduce qualitative researchers to archival research. We discuss why archives exist, how they are organized, how to develop research questions for archival research, and how to bring a research project to conclusion.

Throughout history, guardians of churches and monarchies have preserved archives (Millar, 2017). A scholar of archival theory, Luciana Duranti (1996) wrote that since the time of the French Revolution — which prompted the opening of archives so they could be accessed by ordinary citizens — the juridical function of archives to record and preserve action has been replaced with archives having an historical function. Millar (2017) asserted that archives can be used (1) as source material for histories of countries and communities, and genealogies and family histories, (2) as tools for accountability for tracking injustices and repression, and (3) as touchstones for memory and identity.

Governments and institutions have always collected materials and kept records that are stored in archives. Similarly, organizations, businesses, and institutions archive records. And of course, individuals and families everywhere preserve materials during their lifetimes. As anyone who has visited an estate sale knows, once people die, inheritors must decide what to keep, what to sell, and what to throw out. Historically it has typically been the rich and powerful, primarily men, who have preserved their papers for posterity. Sometimes, an individual’s personal papers and records are donated to archival collections prior to death. When individuals achieved fame in their lifetimes their papers may also find their way into the hands of private collectors. With the digital revolution beginning in the late 20th century, more institutional and personal record-keeping takes place in digital-only formats. This means that the forms of archival materials that are preserved continues to change over time, and includes both material and non-material objects.

A wide range of people make use of archives, including: historians, scholars across the social sciences and other disciplines, researchers locating materials for legal briefs and reports, curators of museums and displays, writers of fiction and non-fiction works, and film-makers creating historical documentaries, television series, and popular movies. The use of documents in research is well-known to qualitative researchers (Prior, 2003). Nevertheless, when we began to explore the archives in our local university special collections libraries, we found the process both new and somewhat puzzling. Since we were not trained as historians, understanding how archival collections are organized and how to develop and pursue research topics in special collections was challenging. When we began to visit other archives, we were disconcerted by how accessing materials in the archives is dissimilar from the library research with which we were familiar.

This book provides a guide to qualitative researchers for how to approach archival research. We also wanted to illuminate the benefits of examining archives to researchers more familiar with the traditional methods of data generation such as interviewing, participant observation, and document analysis. Irrespective of the epistemological, theoretical, and methodological approaches to qualitative inquiry that researchers take, there is much scope for research using the archives. In this book, we provide some of the context that will assist qualitative researchers to enter the archives, develop research projects, and share findings with others.

The book is organized in 8 chapters interspersed with reflections from researchers who describe their experiences developing archival research projects. These scholars are knowledgeable about qualitative research methodologies; but not all were trained as historians and some were new to archival research. Through their brief narratives, readers gain a sense of the diversity of topics that can be explored and the range of archival materials that might be accessed. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the different kinds of archival collections available, along with examples. By providing a glimpse of the disparate resources available in-person and online, we hope that readers will be inspired to search for archival collections pertinent to their own interests. Chapter 3 reviews examples of archival research conducted by scholars from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, communications, education, history, Black Diaspora studies and feminist studies. Through these examples, we hope to demonstrate to readers the different ways in which archival records can be used in qualitative inquiry. Chapter 4 introduces readers to the basics of archival practice. Although special collections that host archival sources are quite often administered by libraries, the organization of archives is very different to that of a typical library. By understanding why archives exist, how archivists organize materials, and what is entailed in visiting an archive, readers can prepare to visit and explore the archives in ways that inform their research. Chapter 5 explores how researchers develop topics for research, how they manage and organize materials for analysis, and how they construct the stories of their research. Chapter 6 discusses some of the impacts of the digital revolution of the late 20th century on archiving practices. Digital technologies have made it possible for archives to digitize source materials and make these accessible to anyone with an internet connection. At the same time, because digitization has made it possible to assemble online resources from geographically dispersed collections, we include examples of archival collections that bring together source materials from multiple locations, but do not house materials in one location. Funding sources have begun to embrace archiving data from research studies in an effort to provide access to materials by other scholars. And in the 21st century, since much record-keeping and data generation is only available in digital form (“born-digital”), some of these data sets are accessible only in digitized forms. Chapter 7 discusses some of the political issues related to conducting archival research. Because elite groups have long ensured which records have been archived and who has accessed these, this has meant that the histories of marginalized groups have frequently been hidden from public view or lost altogether. More recently, efforts have been made to decolonize the archives and ensure that the voices of under-represented groups are represented. Chapter 8 concludes the book by discussing the challenges inherent in doing archival research, as well as strategies that scholars can use to do high-quality, ethical research.

In several chapters we have included tips from archivists experienced with working with researchers. Definitions of terms specific to archival research and additional resources are included in appendices. Each chapter concludes with some questions for readers’ consideration, along with activities that will aid in exploring the archives and developing a research project. We hope that this book will provide a useful entrée into archival research for qualitative researchers, and that readers’ journeys into the archives will be both exciting and fulfilling.

This blogpost is drawn from Chapter 1 of Exploring the archives: A beginner’s guide for qualitative researchers by Kathryn Roulston and Kathleen deMarrais.

Kathryn Roulston & Kathleen deMarrais


Duranti, L. (1996). Archives as place. Archives and Manuscripts, 24(2), 242-255.

Millar, L. A. (2017). Archives: Principles and practices. Neal-Schuman.

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

Roulston, K., & deMarrais, K. (2021). Exploring the archives: A beginner’s guide for qualitative researchers. Myers Education Press.

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