LEARN AboutArchives

Where to start your research

Conducting research can be intimidating. Conducting research in archives can be even more intimidating. Where do you start? How do you know what to look for? What should you do before going to the archive, and what do you do when you get there? Most people who have never worked in an archive often struggle with these questions. If you’re a visual artist, dancer, or performer you might also be unsure about how to distinguish “research as a discipline” from “research as a practice” and an on-going discipline that supports your artistic creation and projects. Here are four tips for starting archival research.

First, you need to decide which archive matches your needs. There are three types of archives:  

  • Public archives are typically held in public libraries, city archives, county and/or regional records management and they usually have public spaces for exhibitions, launches, screenings and other events.
  • University archives typically serve as the institutional memory of the university and play a role in institution or related records management.
  • Private archives encompass the archives of non-public people, or organizations such as private businesses, charities, religious bodies and private individuals.

Second, you need to think about your object(s) and/or subject(s) of inquiry. These are questions you explore, and research before you arrive at an archive or even engage in searching an archive’s database.

  • What do I seek to find out about my chosen object or subject?
  • What questions am I looking to answer?
  • What questions remain unanswered?

Third, before planning your trip, always access the archive’s website and do the following:

  • Find out if you need to book an appointment.
  • Do preliminary searches of the database noting the collection(s) that you specifically want access, documenting the collection name, item number(s), collection record(s), etc. 
  • After completing steps 1-2, when planning your trip to the archive remember:
  • Always bring a pencil (never a pen)
  • Always bring a notepad (get one specifically for archival work that’s of quality) in addition to a laptop, if you have one.
  • Bring a camera and ask if you are permitted to take pictures.

Fourth, here are some examples of archival records you might be interested in:

Census records, Land records, Estate wills, Runaway slave notices, Search and reward notices, Provincial, university, city/town archives, Police records, Tax/assessment records, City directories, Military/militia records, Newspapers, Church records, Slave narratives, Voting registrations, African Canadian books, Government records.

We hope this information is helpful. Archives are only as fun as you make them so have some fun while discovering history!