Tips for using Archives for Historical Research

Four Princeton University Librarians suggest ways to make the most of your time in the archives. 

Steve Knowlton instructs a Wintersession course on using historical archives.

Steve Knowlton instructs a Wintersession course on using historical archives. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

On deciding which items to pull

The eminent historian Robert Caro said the key to his success was that he “turned every page” in the collections he reviewed.  That’s not practical for every researcher, but it does pay to keep in mind that archival collections are often preserved with the organization that was given to them by the person or organization that collected the papers.  You might not find things where you would have put them, or where a library would have classified them.   So be bold and pull every box that seems at all interesting or related to your topic; there are lots of wonderful surprises in folders with names like “Correspondence, J-M”. - Steve Knowlton Librarian for History and African American Studies

On navigating your home and visiting institutions

My top tips are to utilize the librarians and archivists both at your home institution and at the institution you are visiting. At Princeton, we’re happy to help you research within our collections, much like our colleagues will at other institutions. If you would like guidance navigating the website or online resources of other institutions, feel free to reach out to us. Also, take pictures of the materials you are researching if that option is available to you and keep them organized! This will be a huge help throughout your project. - Sara Logue, Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections Public Services

On contacting fellow researchers 

One of the most helpful things you can do in preparing for archival research is to talk to researchers who have recently been to the archives you're interested in. They will have the most up-to-date information on those archives - how to access them, what their hours of operation are, what kind of paperwork you might need, how to do research there, etc. - so they are your best bet to learning the most useful information for preparing for research at archives, libraries, and collections. Researchers shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel every time someone goes to do research for the first time. Talking to colleagues in your field can ensure that you don't have to start your preparatory work from scratch. - Deborah Schlein, Near Eastern Studies Librarian

On planning for your archival visit

Do all the research you can before you leave for the archive, so that you can focus on what can only be studied in the archive. - Alain St. Pierre, Librarian for History, History of Science, and African Studies

Published on February 27, 2023

Compiled by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications