How To

Use an archive.


Successfully master the art of archival research.


Archives are a treasure trove of material: from audio to video to newspapers, magazines and printed material — which makes them indispensable to any History Detective investigation.

While libraries and archives may appear the same, the differences are important. An archive collection is almost always made up of primary sources, while a library contains secondary sources.

To learn more about the Korean War, you'd go to a library for a history book. If you wanted to read the government papers, or letters written by Korean War soldiers, you'd go to an archive.

If you're searching for information, chances are there's an archive out there for you.

Many state and local archives store public records — which are an amazing, diverse resource. For example, the state archives of New Jersey hold more than 30,000 cubic feet of paper and 25,000 reels of microfilm.

An online search of your state's archives will quickly show you they contain much more than just the minutes of the legislature — there is detailed land grant information to be found, old town maps, criminal records and oddities such as peddler license applications. Not to mention basics like tax information.

What this says is that you need to do some serious preparation before you tackle the stacks of your local archive and have to be patient.

Primary source research is time-consuming, tedious and often leads to nothing. Don't give up! Finally discovering that rare record you've been hunting for will make the work worthwhile.

History Detectives Tips

  • Start your research at home: Write down a list of information you're looking for.
  • Research the archive's holdings before you go. Call to confirm hours.
  • Ask the archivist! They're specialists who know their materials inside-out.
  • Ask the archivist what the rules are about handling materials.
  • Relax. It may take a number of trips and false starts before you even start to get the information you want.

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