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The Secrets of Archival Research (and Why They Shouldn’t Be a Secret at All)

The Arizona Historical Society Stacks

Every day in my jobs as an archivist and librarian, I have helped researchers and writers access all kinds of material that tells a story about the past: letters, diaries, ledgers, reports, unpublished novels and memoirs, photographs, newspaper articles, newsletters, oral histories, and maps, just to name a few. These writers are not just historians and professors, but also include journalists, science writers, archaeologists, ethnomusicologists, genealogists, fiction writers, detectives, private investigators, corporate researchers, reality TV producers, and documentary filmmakers. They are all seeking out true stories worth telling from the past, whether they will end up sticking strictly to the “truth” (however sticky that term might be) or stretching it for an even better story in their final product.

It is remarkable that these researchers and writers, who come from all over the U.S. and the world, manage to find what they’re looking for in archives at all. Worldwide, descriptions of archival material can often be buried in catalogs and databases (when they are cataloged) that the general public, even university professors and other people who research and write for a living, often have no idea exist. If you are writing about the past in some way, a Google search may bring you a plethora of sources on your historical topic. However, if you aren’t doing deep searches of library catalogs and databases, calling archivists on the phone, and visiting archives in person, you are only doing the bare minimum — and quite frankly, whatever you end up publishing will not be the best it could be.

One of the most frequent comments I’ve gotten on my recently-published book, A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves, and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport, is “I can’t believe all the research you did!” This research — six years of it — led to many unexpected and shocking stories about my subject, a librarian, journalist, and activist named Ruth Rappaport: the reports on her supposed Communist activities from her FBI file; her sexual assaults mentioned in diaries, letters, and memos; the list of belongings in her father’s file from his time as a prisoner at Buchenwald; the newspaper article reporting on the murder of her brother-in-law in Jerusalem, among many others. Why did I do such extensive research? Because I knew how, and I knew this material might be out there, somewhere, if I searched hard enough. My approximately twenty years working in libraries and archives, going all the way back to my first job in my college library, gave me an advantage most writers don’t have. But even a professional archivist still overlooks a lead or misses clues. Now that the book has been published, people I was unable to track down before are contacting me with stories about Ruth I had no idea about. And believe me, the regrets are real and they sting.

The world of archives can be notoriously murky and difficult to navigate. This goes back to an old line of thinking that since manuscript collections and precious and invaluable, we should restrict access to them. The vast majority of archivists don’t believe that anymore, but the realities of declining budgets, small staff sizes, and the tendency of many of us to focus on minutiae rather than the big picture, has led to many of our collections remaining virtually hidden. A collection may be processed, cataloged, and open to the public but if no one is using it, that likely means that the public unfortunately has no idea it exists.

Last summer, historian Alice Dreger published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Delicate Art of Dealing with Your Archivist,” which gave tips on approaching, or more accurately, manipulating archivists she had classified into six stereotypes. Not surprisingly, the outrage among archivists was so immediate and widespread that Dreger called for her article to be retracted (it wasn’t) and claimed an editor had goaded her into writing the piece, which she did not even realize would be published as is. These kinds of backbiting articles and internet takedowns don’t contribute anything to the goal of better relationships between archivists and researchers, and hence, better research.

Perhaps because archivists are so swamped by the daily grind — processing collections, answering reference questions, and for those on the tenure track at university archives, publishing only in little-read academic journals, the outreach that we could do to explain to the public how to jump into archival research often falls by the wayside. Even though at my most recent job, we lead dozens of orientation tours for groups and classes throughout the year and host an annual regional archives bazaar open to the public, among other activities, I still knew that many local history buffs don’t even know our institution exists. I belong to a Facebook group for local history, which seems to be where people turn to more and more to find the answer to a burning question. I’ve posted responses that include links to our archives’ website and catalog to encourage these potential researchers to come in. The grateful responses I received lead me to believe that while social media is a terrific avenue for reference and outreach, archivists are still not doing a good enough job to reach people where they are.

The basic and advanced steps for researching in archives shouldn’t be hidden knowledge, it shouldn’t be intimidating, and you shouldn’t have to go on a special in-person tour or an orientation class to know them. This week, I’ll be posting a series of articles with my own tricks and tips, gathered from both my many years working in libraries and archives and my own obsessive research odyssey to track down everything I could on the life of Ruth Rappaport. Do I expect every writer interested in doing historical research to follow all of this advice? Of course not. Some of these tips are things I wish I had done in hindsight. Only someone with a huge book advance and a full-time research assistant could spend the extraordinary time it takes to do such thorough research, i.e., you’d have to be Robert Caro or live in another era. But just taking a stab at a few of them will lead you down an adventurous path that can be both thrilling and addictive. Trust me, there’s no Google search like it.

Step One: Preliminary Online Searching

Step Two: Remote Research and Communicating with Archivists

Step Three: Research Trips and Reading Room Procedures

Step Four: Organizing and Using Your Research



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Kate Stewart

Kate Stewart


Archivist, librarian, historian. Author of A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves, and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport (Little A).