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Introduction to Archival Research

Get started understanding how to find and use archival collections in your school work, professional research, or family research.

Inductive or deductive research

There are two general directions of research: 

  • Inductive research begins with the observation of a phenomenon and leads to a theory to explain that phenomenon.
    • For example: When looking through a collection that interests you, you come across a curious document or trend that you'd like to understand more.
  • Deductive research begins with a theory, then evidence is collected to prove that theory. 
    • For example:  You have a hypothesis about an historical person or event, and you seek out archival sources that support your hypothesis.

In truth, archival research is often cyclical. If you find one interesting piece of evidence, you may have difficulty finding more information on that topic. When you dive into a collection with a specific research question, you may not find materials that contain the evidence you need - but you could discover something unexpected that inspires a new search.

Archival research requires patience, creativity, and flexibility, to find the evidence you need and to use the evidence you find.

Choosing search terms

Archival collections are usually made up of original primary source documents. To preserve historical context, the titles of collections, series, folders, and items often reflect of the language used by the creator of the documents at the time. 

When searching for archival material, brainstorm a range of search terms reflective of the vocabulary more common in the historical period you're researching.

For example: 

  • To study trends in popular culture, a search for "teenager" would return few results dated before the 1940s, when the term "teenager" came into use. Relevant material may be found with terms like "adolescent," "youth," or "juvenile" in the 1920s-1930s. Before that, there was rarely a recognized designation for people between children and adults.

Questions to guide your search

When you are ready to begin archival research, there are a few questions you can use to guide you:


1. What evidence or information would answer my research question or support my hypothesis? 
2. What documents or materials would have this evidence or information?
3. What archival collections would contain these documents or materials?


Example: "Manhattan Nickelodeons: New Data on Audiences and Exhibitors"

Black and white photograph of Comet Theater building exterior with many illustrated banners and placards reading "High Class Motion Pictures and Illustrated Songs," and announcing movie titles

In 1995, film historian Ben Singer wrote an influential article on the history of nickelodeon film theaters in Manhattan. The nickelodeon period, from 1907 to 1909, was a brief but vital period of transition in cinema history, when film evolved from a novelty amusement at fairs or vaudeville shows to an established theatrical industry.


Image credit: The Original Comet Theater 100 3rd Ave. New York City (ca. 1910), WCFTR Place File, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Madison WI

In his article, Singer started with a research question: 

What was the make-up of the nickelodeon's audience in terms of class and ethnic composition? 

In the terms above, his research plan would have looked like this: 

1. What evidence or information would answer my research question or support my hypothesis?  Because New York City neighborhoods were often divided according to ethnic and class groups, data on nickelodeon theater locations could give evidence of the ethnic and class make-up of theater goers.
2. What documents or materials would have this evidence or information?

The locations of nickelodeon theaters in New York in the period can be gathered from: 

NYC business directories

Film industry trade papers

NYC building permit ledgers*

3. What archival collections would contain these documents or materials?

The sources of data above can be located and accessed in: 

New York Public Library

Bureau of Buildings records, New York City Municipal Archives

Map 1: Manhattan Nickelodeons, 1907-1909. Map of Manhattan neighborhoods with theater locations indicated


* Because early nitrate film stock was extremely flammable, the storefront buildings that housed nickelodeon theaters had specific licenses, according to NYC fire code. Ben Singer's use of building permits to identify properties zoned for film exhibition was a creative method of mapping nickelodeon theater locations. From those maps, he was able to make inferences about the ethnic and class demographics of movie-goers in the nickelodeon era. 


Singer, Ben. "Manhattan Nickelodeons: New Data on Audiences and Exhibitors." Cinema Journal 34, no. 3 (1995): 5-35. 



Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B