HISTG8300 : Interwar Internationalism Reconsidered: Archival Research

Archival Research

Archival Research: How-To Guides: Websites

American Historical Association > A Survival Guide to Archival Research

Internet for Archives (Online tutorial on using online resources to find archival or primary source material)

Learning to Do Historical Research

William Cronon’s site on doing research (the whole site is excellent, see, in particular, material on Sources > Manuscripts and Archives

Library and Archives Canada: Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers

National Archives and Records Administration: Getting Started Overview


Archival Research How-To Guides: Books

Wayne C. Booth, et al., The Craft of Research, 3rd ed.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Philip C. Brooks, Research in Archives: The Use of Unpublished Primary Sources (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 120pp.

Useful for historical perspective, and theories of understanding material, but too dated to take into account digital methods.

Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar, eds., Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001)

Elizabeth Ann Danto, Historical Research (Oxford: OUP, 2008) Basic, quick read, but useful.

Diana Hacker, Research and Documentation Online (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s). 

M.R. Hill, Archival Strategies and Techniques (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993). Dated but useful in parts.

Kip Sperry, Reading Early American Handwriting (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008)


Archival Research: How to Read Old Handwriting

How to Read 18th Century British-American Writing

English Handwriting, 1500-1700: An Online Course (Transcription, dating, reading, etc.)

Script Tutorials: Resources for Old Handwriting and Documents (BYU. For English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish)

U.K. National Archives Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500-1800


Other Useful Archival Search Sources

American Historical Association (AHA) Archives Wiki (Searches various archives)


Genealogical and biographical information

Ancestry Library


Decennial Census (see also)

FamilySearch (A free LDS genealogical site akin to Ancestry.com)

CLIO Databases: Databases with Biographical content


More Useful Links

Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office

Addresses relationship between copyright law and scholarship, including fair use and copyright ownership. Website has excellent information.

Measuring Worth

Excellent collection of historic economic data and simple calculators to determine the relative value of something (how much is/was it worth?) with data from the China, Japan, UK, and US. “To comprehend a past transaction or asset, one must begin with the contemporary value of the item. To make this valuation meaningful, it must be measured against the value of the appropriate economic indicator in that year.” Provides relative value in seven different ways: CPI; GDP deflator; consumer bundle; unskilled wage; production worker compensation; GDP per capita; and GDP.

Archival Research Sources accessible through Columbia University Libraries (CUL)

CUL Databases

All Library databases can be accessed here. Examples of what you can type in search field to see what databases come up

  • diaries
  • letters

Research Guides by Subject Areas

CUL Archives

American National Biography Online

Entries for individuals includes a note at the end that lists a few major archival collections on the subject, as well as published biographies.


Archive Finder (for US, UK, Ireland), incorporates ArchivesUSA. Searches multiple archives by keyword.

Columbia Center for Oral History (COH) Collections Portal

COH is the oldest and largest organized oral history program in the world. This portal searches more than 6,000 records of interviews held by the Center for Oral History. In addition there is a paper card catalog in COH (8th floor Butler) with a cross reference that lists every interview and page number in which each person is mentioned. For example, there is an interview with Frances Perkins, but there is also a card that lists every other interview in which her name appears.

Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research (Columbia University)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Entries include biographies, archives, and locations of portraits/photos.

Social and Cultural History: Letters and Diaries Online

Online, searchable archive of private writing and personal narratives.



The League of Nations Oral History Project

These recollections by former officers of the League of Nations were recorded through the cooperation of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The interviews, obtained in Geneva, describe the early days of organizing the League Secretariat and record many international problems and negotiations.

James Thomson Shotwell Papers

Correspondence and other documents relating to the Paris Peace Conference, League of Nations, and Locarno Pact with which Prof. Shotwell was associated. There is material relating to Shotwell's THE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE WORLD WAR, as well as to his other writings.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Records

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, established by Andrew Carnegie in 1910, is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations and promoting active international engagement by the United States. The Endowment provided diplomatic training for some 250 foreign service officers from emerging nations and published International Conciliation, a leading journal in the field.

Dag Hammerskjold Project: Oral History

Colleagues recall their association with Dag Hammarskjold, (1905-1961), his personal qualities, his training and experience in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, his abilities and interests, and his approach to the administrative and executive challenges of the post of Secretary General of the United Nations, particularly staffing the Secretariat, the Congo crisis, and the Russian troika proposal.

United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration Records

United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was established in 1943. Its purpose was to provide for the relief of war victims in any area under the control of any of the United Nations. Its operations came to an end in 1946. Included are correspondence, memoranda, documents, minutes, committee reports, and miscellaneous documents from the files of the Bureau of Administration; Office of the Diplomatic Advisor; Office of the Director General; Office of the Economic Advisor; Office of Far Eastern Affairs; Office of the General Counsel; Office of the Historian; Office of Public Information; and Secretariat Executive Officer.

A Few Digital Collections

American History in Video (Includes a number of newsreels by United Newsreel and others)

Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions

Columbia University Libraries Digital Collections

Robert Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery (Avery Library)

Collection of printed ephemera with architectural imagery (factories, warehouses, banks, offices, etc.) from 1850-1920; scanned from billheads, letterheads, envelopes, checks, and business cards. 

New York Real Estate Brochure Collection (CU Avery Library)

Over 9,200 advertising brochures, floor plans, price lists, and related materials that document residential and commercial real estate development in the five boroughs of New York and outlying vicinities from the 1920s to the 1970s.

The Real Estate Record (CU Avery Library)

The Real Estate Record is a weekly report of building activity in New York City and its environs. This website contains fully digitized volumes, ranging from Volume 1 (published in 1868) to Volume 110 (published in 1922). 

New York City Buildings: Research Guide (CU Avery Library)

Archives typically consist of personal or organizational correspondence, administrative records, unpublished manuscripts, ephemera, and assorted media, but can include almost any type of “text.” The document that serves—for better and worse—depending on its condition—as the roadmap to what is contained in an archival collection is the finding aid. It describes the organizational and intellectual order of the collection, which typically includes

  • the scope and content of the collection;
  • a biographical note or description of the person or institution related to the collection;
  • restrictions, if any, that apply to the access and use of the material;
  • a statement explaining the organizing structure of the collection; and
  • a box and folder list of the actual contents (running from general to item level description, depending on the collection).

Not all finding aids include all these categories of information, but most aim to cover these basic elements.

Examples of finding aids:
The Good (Generally well organized with enough information to be useful)
The Bad (scans of typed documents that don’t offer enough information)
 The Ugly (challenging format, useful information; currently being re-done)
Catalogs (including access to digital books, audio, film, etc.)