Archival Collection

If you are interested in studying documents dealing with a particular institution, group, or historical period, you might be interested in using an archival collection related to that group.

An archive is a special repository of documents, often historical in nature, aimed to help researchers discover primary sources (sources that directly communicate a record of events). Traditionally, archives are physical places usually attached to libraries or civic institutions, such as

  • Amsterdam City Archives (holding maps and civic documents from Amsterdam history)
  • Leiden University Archives (holding the papers of the faculty and academic senates).

However, modern archives are increasingly digitized and online, including purely online archives such as hathitrust.org and archive.org, which both have varied and global collections.

When undertaking archival collection research, the major challenge is to discover relevant documents. Archival collections can be simultaneously very narrow (focused on particular people or issues) and deep (containing thousands of pages), and you need a research strategy to help systematically discover relevant material. Begin by trying to discover a finding aid – a document produced by the archive to help researchers navigate collections – or speaking directly to a librarian at the archive (librarians are an invaluable resource for archival researchers, and almost always know more about the collections than we ever will!).

Archives are usually open to general researchers, but may require advance registration or notice of your visit. Because archival collections are often unique and irreplaceable, they may also have special security measure and restrict what materials can be brought with you. Look up the policies of a specific archive you plan to visit.

Consider keeping an archive log where you write down the search and location of every significant document you encounter. Archival research can involve massive quantities of documents and you’ll be grateful if you have an easy way to organize and track them later. Many archives will allow you to photograph, scan, or photocopy documents in the archive so that you can build your own document ‘dataset’ for future use and analysis.


  • Davis, N.Z. (1987) Fiction in the Archives. Stanford University Press.

    If you’re new to archival research, consider this book which describes a history of pardon claims in sixteenth-century France which is quite thoughtful about how the contents of archival records are produced.

  • Nygaard, Bright, Saltz, & McGaffigan (2007) Archival Data: Collection and Use in Community Alcohol Projects. Substance Use & Misuse 42, 12—13.

    This book helpfully outlines a set of problems and solutions for archival research on contemporary social issues.

  • Decker (2013) The Silence of the Archives: business history, post-colonialism and archival ethnography. Management & Organizational History Vol. 8.

    Stephanie Decker thoughtfully considers issues of colonialism and archival production, and the relevance of the archive to contemporary social silence in her 2013 article.

  • Ham, F. (1984) Archival Choices: Managing the Historical Record in an Age of Abundance. The American Archivist 47.1.

    It may be interesting to read the work of archivists themselves as they discuss how archives are created and organized, such as this work by Ham.

  • Ham, F. (1975) The Archival Edge. The American Archivist January 1975.

    This work by archivist Ham shows another interesting discussion of how archives are created and organized.

  • Gadd, Karstedt, & Messner (2012) Historical and Archival Research Methods. In D. Gadd, S. Karstedt, S. Messner (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Criminological Research Methods. SAGE, 2012.

    This chapter gives a subject-specific archival methods introduction, with specific insights related to the topic and field of criminological research methods.

  • Mills & Mills (2018) Archival Research. In: C. Cassell, A. Cunliffe, G. Grandy (Eds.), SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Business and Management Research Methods: Methods & Challenges. SAGE.

    This chapter gives a subject-specific archival methods introduction, with specific insights related to the topic and field of qualitative business and management research methods.