Doing Archival Research

Many patrons believe that doing research in an archives is similar to doing research in a library. Think about going to a library: materials are organized first according to format, with books in one section, periodicals in another, etc. Next, they are arranged according to a cataloging system, such as Library of Congress or the Dewey Decimal System. In a library, it’s easy to find books about knitting, films about crocodiles, etc. So patrons will sometimes come to us to say, “I want to see all photographs related to the Glen Canyon Dam,” or something similar. Because archivists do not organize records according to subject or media/format, you (the researcher) will be required to do a little digging in order to find what these types of materials.

In archives, we arrange records according to provenance, meaning we keep our records together based on which person or agency created and collected them. All of Governor Hunt’s records are together, all of the Department of Water Resources materials are together, etc. Provenance is important, in part, because it means that the record can be be attributed to a particular creator, which guarantees its authenticity – it can stand up in a court of law! Another important principle (in addition to provenance) is original order, meaning we keep records in the order the creator organized them, so they don’t lose important context. (In instances of pure chaos, we are force to impose original order, but we try to avoid this).

A key difference between librarians and archivists is that librarians catalog (generally at the item-level), while archivists arrange and describe (generally at the collection level). Librarians produce catalog records, displayed through Online Public Access Catalogs (OPAC) or traditional, old-fashioned card catalogs. Archivists produce finding aids, which are guides to collections, which allow the researcher to learn about the entire context of the collection. (We prefer to use the Society of American Archivists content standard, Describing Archives: a Content Standard, or DACS). Information included in these guides includes administrative history, date range, size of collection, scope and content, custodial history, copyright or access restrictions, series or folder-level description, etc. Feel free to check out some of our online finding aids at Arizona Archives Online.

The moral of the story is that, when you come to do research at the Arizona State Archives, it is often a little trickier than simply requesting everything we have on a particular subject. Let’s use water as an example, since the determination of Western water rights is an important research topic that we see often. If you want to find records related to water, you’ll have to imagine who the stakeholders were, and who would make decisions on water. You may also have to figure out the history of agencies, as they may have changed names, shifted responsibilities to a different agency, or closed altogether! So the records that might be most useful could show up in the county Superior Court records, the Department of Water Resources records, Governor’s records, etc.

Finding things in the archives can often be less about keyword searching, and more about going on a treasure hunt! Be sure to save plenty of time!