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Archival Research

Doing archival research

Archives versus libraries - the differences

You may already be familiar with using Libraries, for example when researching for your university assignments or finding books for your leisure reading. However, libraries are different to archives so how use them will differ.

Archives consist mainly of primary sources of information, such as firsthand accounts from people or evidence that relates to a past event or time period. In contrast libraries contain mostly secondary sources of information such as journal articles and books which have been formally published.

Also, archives are organised by provenance, who collected or created the object or item. This is different to western libraries which organise information using the Dewey Decimal system which is by subject area. This means how you search an archival collection will be quite different to searching your university of public library.

Watch the following short video to get a brief overview of searching some key Australian archives:

 Video length: 6 min. 55 sec

  • Government archives are required to collect and preserve items to be considered an archive collection.
  • Many archive collections are now available online.
  • Look for an archive search option when you go to an archive's website.
  • A keyword search can be useful for locating records.
  • Sometimes you will not be able to see the actual record online but must visit the archive.

Not everything is online

Not all archives have been able to digitise their content due to time, expense, copyright restrictions and privacy. You may have to visit certain archives in person or contact the archivist to discuss what you are looking for. They may be able to assist you with gettting something digitised inf you cannot physically come into the archive.

Make use of finding aids

Many archives have finding aids. These are guides, or keys, to help you navigate their collections.

Finding aids will help you learn more about the collection to determine if it is relevant. They typically include: background information on the creator or theme of the collection, a description of the collection's content and organisation, and a breakdown of the collection's contents.

The National Archives of Australia has a range of finding aids (research guides) that you can explore here:

Plan your search

Before you start consider: 

  • What are the main topics, themes or events you want to search for?
  • Who may have created information about these? Think about places, events, dates and people. These are often used to organise and describe archives. Note these down in a table or mind map as a strategy to organise your ideas.
  • What language or terminology may have been used? Use a dictionary, such as the Macquarie Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary, which has a thesaurus you can explore.
  • Doing some initial searching and reading of secondary sources of information, such as journal articles and book chapters, to learn more about the topic, theme or event.


Browsing versus keyword searching

As archives contain primary sources, some which are not in written form making, keyword searching can be difficult. You may find it easier to start by browsing a collection and focus your search as you get a feel for it.

If you want to do a keywords search be mindful that the more keywords you add the narrower your search will become.A useful technique can be to start with a basic keywords searching using either the subject, geographic location, format, creator or creation date. You can then choose to add more keywords to your to search to narrower it further.

Top search features

Search interfaces and their features will most likely vary significantly between different archives depending on their size and funding.

Some features to consider utilising if available are:

Allows for more searching options to maximise your search.

Advanced search from the New South Wales State Archives and Records.

This allows you to search across different parts of a records such as the title, date, location, format, creator or even access status. Some sophisticated search interfaces may let you select how you want to search or search different parts of a record at once.

Field searching options available from the New South Wales State Archives and Records.

This allows you to put quotation marks around two or more keywords to search them as a phrase. This will help you return more accurate results. Some search interfaces offer an exact phrase option you can select.

"political campaign"

An 'is (exact)' search option is available from the New South Wales State Archives and Records.

Most search interfaces default to a keyword search which allows you to connect each of your different keywords together using AND. This will then find records with all your keywords in it. poster AND "political campaign"
Some search interfaces will allow you to find synonyms or alternative keywords using the connector OR. This can be helpful for broadening your search. military OR defence force
This feature may be available in some more sophisticated search interfaces allowing you find plurals and different word endings. This is often a symbol such as the * symbol. Austral* will find Australia, Australian and Australasian.
This feature may be available in some more sophisticated search interfaces allowing you to find different word spellings. This is often a symbol such as the ? or # symbol but may vary. organi?ation will find organisation or organization

Tip: Always look for help screen or search tips to find out the best way to search that archive.

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