HIST 5023: Historical Methods

This guide assists with identifying and researching topics for historical study including how to find and use primary and secondary resources.

Getting Started with Archival Research

Whether you are using archival materials here in Special Collections or are traveling to distant archives, locating and using manuscript materials is quite different from searching  for published sources. Below are some links with advice for organizing your research and planning your work in an archive.

Locating Manuscript Collections

Search Strategies

Searching for manuscript collections by topic can be tricky. Many collections of family or business papers might have fascinating information about social or economic history, historic events or periods, or past practices and beliefs. However, the collection-level records that describe the collection may not go onto that level of detail.

Try to think about your research topic by the kinds of records that might illuminate the subject. For example, if you are interested in women in the south, there may not be a collection with that exact subject description. But we have many collections of records from women's social and extension clubs that could provide very rich source material for that topic.

When reading secondary sources - articles and books - on your topic, browse the footnotes to consider the kinds of sources the author consulted. You may find similar materials here or at other libraries.

Using Manuscript Collections

In the library, WorldCat, or other library catalogs, you will usually find collection-level records that describe an entire collection of papers from one person, family, or organization.


To use a collection of any size, a researcher needs to consult the collection finding aid, a detailed inventory of the materials in the collection. Finding aids are usually organized by series, boxes, and folders. Often finding aids are available on an archive's website.


What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid describes the arrangement and contents of a manuscript collection. While many of the Special Collections find aids are available online, not all of them are. In addition to reference works and research guides, finding aids are available in print format in the Special Collections Reading room.

Manuscript collections can vary in size from one folder or box of correspondence to large collections consisting of hundreds of boxes containing letters, unpublished writings, official documents, video, audio, and photographic materials, and personal collections of books and other published materials. Knowing what sorts of things are in a collection and where to find them is essential to successful research.

Lists on the Special Collections website describe collections with complete finding aids, or descriptions, online.You can search the available finding aids and descriptions alphabetically or by subject.