Guide to European and UK Libraries, Archives and Research Centers: Archival Research

Archival Research

Archival Research: How-To Guides: Websites

Society of American Archivists: Using Archives- A Guide to Effective Research (a very thorough guide!)

American Historical Association > A Survival Guide to Archival Research

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: A to Z tools and guides for Canadian archival collections

National Archives and Records Administration (USA): 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Philip C. Brooks, Research in Archives: The Use of Unpublished Primary Sources (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 120pp.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 in the Electronic Age (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


Genealogical and biographical information

Ancestry Library (access provided by Columbia Libraries- not the same as public version, (public version, some free content, requires individual subscription for full access)

Decennial Census

FamilySearch (A free LDS genealogical site akin to

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.


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)

Catalogs (including access to digital books, audio, film, etc.)