Introduction to archival research

Whilst libraries are most commonly associated with providing content, archives are most commonly associated with providing context for a particular time period and/or community.

Records and archives are increasingly being digitised and made available online, so we created this to help you find and navigate them.

Archives are useful for anyone studying or researching in the humanities and social sciences, particularly history, film, journalism, media, politics, anthropology and sociology, as they expand our knowledge and understanding of culture and society.

Searching for archives is very different from searching for published material or secondary sources because archives are organised by who collected or created the collections (by provenance), not by subject or topic. The following pages will help you discover who would have created, collected, or been responsible for the records.

Quick tips

Primary sources

Archives are often the best way to find primary source material that was produced at the time of a particular event or period.

Key things to remember when doing archival research online:

Know your topic, time period and language:

  • Context is key: Identify the main topics, themes or events, and think about who is likely to have created or be responsible for the sources you are interested in and the language they would have used at the time
  • Learn the language of your topic with dictionaries, encyclopedias and thesauri – Start with Oxford Reference Online (Access via History databases)
  • Look at the primary sources included in the footnotes and bibliography of scholarly secondary sources on the topic
  • Include the word “sources” in a Library Search or database keyword search. Also try words like: diaries, personal narrative, interview, letters, correspondence, etc.
  • Define additional concrete search terms such as places, events, dates, people or organisations involved in your topic because this information is used to organise or describe archives.
  • Make sure you are looking at material from the correct time period. Use the Advanced search mode to search by a date range. This will identify some works published during that time period.
  • When searching remember to always put quotation marks around two or more words to search as a phrase i.e. "White Australia Policy"
  • You can truncate words to pick up plurals or variants on a word e.g. austral* will search for Australia, Australian, Australians etc

Browse the collection or start broad and filter down 

As many are not text‐based, primary sources can be harder to find using keyword searches, so you may find it easier to filter a quick or basic search by creation date, geographical location, format, subject area, creator or other known criteria and browse the collection from there.

Look out for finding aids:

Finding aids are guides that are created to provide information about specific collections and they will help you decide whether or not a collection is relevant to your research as they generally include: background information on the creator or theme of the collection, a description of the collection’s overall content and organisation, a breakdown of the collection's contents.

Not everything is online:

Digitisation is time consuming and expensive, so it's not possible for all records to be made available online, but this guide will help you find those records that have been digitised.