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Special Collections: How Do I Do Archival Research?

Words to Know

Finding Aid: A finding aid is a guide to what kinds of things you are likely to find in an archival collection, how to look for those things, and how to use them. A finding aid is like an index to a book.*

Series: A series is how we label portion of collections, similar to chapters in a book. 

ArchivistAn individual who works to organize archival collections and make them accessible for research. Archivists don't just work with old papers and books; archivists work with computer files, photographs, artifacts, maps, sound recordings, textiles, and film. 

ProvenanceInformation regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection. 

What's the difference between Conservation and Preservation? Conservation counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation, which attempts to prevent damage.**

*Definition courtesy of Jill Severn, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.

**Definition courtesy of the SAA Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology

Get Ready!

Before you dive into archival research, know what you want to research. It's easy to be overwhelmed with names, dates, acronyms, and lots and lots of paper

  • To prepare, think of what or who you want to search for. What was their name? Where did they live or work? When were they alive? What historical events were they involved in? Compile names, dates, locations, and keywords to make your search as easy as possible. 
  • Remember to think about how society functioned and what words or phrases people used during the time period you are researching. 
    • Example #1: Someone writing to their congressman in 1963 in regard to the Civil Rights Movement might not have used the term "African American" in their letter. Instead, they might have used the term "colored."
    • Example #2: The term "pregnant" was not openly used in society until the 1960s. Documents pre-dating this might refer to a woman who is "expecting," is "in the family way," or is "with child."
  • Read up on your topic. What do others have to say about it? What ground has been covered?
  • At a dead end? Discuss your topic with your professor or get in touch with staff at UGA Special Collections.  

Subject Guide