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Archival Research Tutorial: Getting Started

Learn how to effectively conduct archival research and use primary sources in your research projects.

Using Finding Aids

Unlike books, archival collections typically cannot be cataloged a the item level.  Instead, archives use finding aids, or collection guides, to describe their collections as a whole.

What is a finding aid? A guide or research tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. They include information about the creator or author, formats, dates covered, and how the materials are arranged. Then there will be lists of the series, boxes, folders, and items. 

How are finding aids used?  Researchers and archivists can search or browse a finding aid to find materials relevant to their research topic. Use them to narrow down which boxes and folders you will request at the Archives. If items or documents are digitized, links to the digital files will be included. 

To learn more about Suffolk's collections, you can view the full list on the "Finding aids" page on the Moakley Archive's Collections page. 

Research Steps

Start with a general topic

  • Choose a topic based on the assignment and personal interest (start broad).
  • Create a work plan that includes: due dates, assignment length and scope, types of sources needed.

Do Background Research

  • Search for secondary sources (books, articles, online content) using the library’s online catalog and databases
  • Narrow the topic by asking questions like Who, What, Where, When.
  • Examine the footnotes and bibliographies of the relevant sources to find additional books, articles, or archival sources
  • Consult a reference librarian or professor for help with search strategies or help refining your topic

Search for Archival Sources

  • Not sure where to start? Search large Archive Databases like Worldcat or Archive Grid
  • Once you've identified a collection, search their catalog (if available), finding aids, or research guides
  • Create a list of resources you want to view (include titles and collection identifiers)
  • Contact the Archive to discuss collections, search strategies, or to make a research appointment
  • Prepare a list of boxes and folders to view

At the Archives

  • Schedule a research appointment (1-2 hour time slot)
  • Take Notes!! Keep track of box and folder info for research paper citations
  • Evaluate the sources for authenticity, biases, missing perspectives
  • Ask Questions!! Archivists are there to help.

Ask an Archivist!

Save yourself some time! Ask us about:

  • Topics, search strategies and relevant sources
  • Online sources
  • Help using databases and citation tips

617.305.6293 |

Archival Research Primer

Read this handy guide for more detailed information about archival research and methodologies. 

Consult Secondary Sources First!

Before heading to the Archives, do background research! The Sawyer Library provides full-text, online access to wide variety of newspaper and journal content, including: