Chapter 16. Archival and Historical Research


The British sociologist John Goldthorpe (2000) once remarked, “Any sociologist who is concerned with a theory that can be tested in the present should so test it, in the first place; for it is, in all probability, in this way that it can be tested most rigorously” (33). Testing can be done through either qualitative or quantitative methods or some mixture of the two. But sometimes a theory cannot be tested in the present at all. What happens when the persons or phenomena we are interested in happened in the past? It’s hardly possible to interview the people involved in abolishing the slave trade, for example. Does this mean social scientists have no role to play in understanding past phenomena? Not at all. People leave traces behind, and although these traces may not be exactly as we would like them to be had we ordered them (as, in a way, we do when we construct an interview guide or a survey with the questions we want answered), they are nevertheless full of potential for exploration and analysis. For examining traces left by persons, we turn to archival methods, the subject of this chapter.


[Untitled image] by Catarina Carvalho on Unsplash

Things happening in the past are not the only reason we turn to archival methods. Sometimes, the people we are interested in are inaccessible to us for other reasons. For example, we are probably not going to be able to sit down and ask Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos a long list of questions about what it is like to be wealthy. And it is even more unlikely that we can get into the boardrooms of Facebook (Meta), Microsoft, or Amazon to watch how corporate decisions are made. But these men and these companies still leave traces, through public records, media reportage, and public meeting minutes. We can use archival methods here too. They might not be quite as good as face-to-face interviews with billionaires or deep ethnographies of corporate culture, but they are nevertheless valid forms of research with much to tell us.

This chapter introduces archival methods of data collection. We begin by exploring in more detail why and when archival methods should be employed and with what limitations. We then discuss the importance of special collections and archives as potential gold mines for social science research. We will explain how to access these places, for what purposes, and how to begin to make sense of what you find.

Disciplinary Segue: Why Social Scientists Don’t Leave Archives to the Historians

One might suppose that only historians look at the past and that historical archives are no place for social scientists. Goldthorpe (2000) even suggested this. But it would be a mistake to leave historical analyses entirely to historians because historians “typically do not understand our [social science] intellectual and organizational projects.…Social scientists must learn to use the materials that historians have staked out traditionally as their own” (Hill 1993:4). The key difference for our purposes between history and social science is how each discipline understands the goals of its work and how to understand social life. Historians are (mostly) committed to an idiographic approach, where each case is explored to understand itself (this is the “idios” part, where ιδιοs is Ancient Greek for single self).[1] As an example of an idiographic approach, a historian might study the events of January 6, 2021, to understand how a violent mob attempted to stop the electoral count. This might mean tracing motivations back to beliefs in fanciful conspiracies, measuring the impact of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the violence, or any number of interesting facts and circumstances about that day and what led up to it. But the focus would remain on understanding this case itself. In contrast, social scientists are (mostly) committed to nomothetic research, in which generalizations about the social world are made to understand large-scale social patterns.[2] Whether this generalization is statistical, as quantitative research produces (e.g., we can predict this outcome in other cases and places based on measurable relationships among variables), or theoretical, as qualitative research produces (e.g., we can expect to find similar patterns between conspiratorial belief and action), the point of (most) social science research is to explain the world in such a way that we can possibly expect (if not outright predict) what will happen or be believed in a different place and time. Social scientists are engaged in this “scientific” project of prediction (loosely understood), while historians are (usually) not. It is for this reason that social scientists should not leave archival research to the historians!

When to Use Archival Materials

As mentioned above, sometimes the people we want to hear from or observe are simply not available to us. This may be because they are no longer living or because they are unwilling or unable to be part of a research study, as in the case of elites (e.g., CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, political leaders and other public figures, the very wealthy). In both cases, you might wonder about the ethics of studying people who have not given written consent to be studied. But using archival and historical sources as your research data is not the same thing as studying persons (“human subjects”). When we use archival and historical sources, we are examining the traces that people and institutions have left. Institutional review boards (IRBs) do not have jurisdiction in this area, although we still want to consider the ethics of our research and try to respect privacy and confidentiality when warranted.

In addition to using archival and historical sources when people are inaccessible, there are other reasons we might want to collect this data. First, we may want to explore the generalized discourse about a phenomenon.[3] For example, perhaps we want to understand the historical context of the 2016 US presidential election, so we think it is important to go back in time and collect data that will more vividly paint a picture of how people at the time were evaluating and experiencing the election. We might use archives to collect data about what people were saying about the third presidential debate in 2016 between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are many ways we could go about doing that. We could sample local and national newspapers and collect op-eds and letters to the editor about the debate. Perhaps we can get Twitter feeds #thirddebate, or perhaps some librarian in 2016 collected oral histories of people’s reactions the day after. Unlike previous person-focused qualitative research strategies, where we carefully create a research design that allows us to construct data through questioning and observing, we will spend our time tracking down data and finding out what possibly exists.

A second (or third) reason to employ these archival and historical sources is that we are interested in the historical “record” as the phenomenon itself. We want to know what was written down by Acme Company in letters to its shareholders from 1945 to 1960 about its Acme Pocket Sled (which had the unfortunate habit of accelerating and hurling its bearers off cliffs).[4] Our interest here is not in any particular human subject but in the record left by the company. If we were forced to employ interviews or observational methods to get this record, we could interview current and former employees of Acme or shareholders who received letters from the company, but all of this would actually be second best because what the employees and shareholders remember would probably be nowhere near as accurate as what the records reflect. I once did a study of the development of US political party platforms over the course of the nineteenth century, using a huge volume I randomly found in the library (Hurst 2010b). The volume recorded each party’s platform by election year, so I could trace how parties talked about and included “class” and “class inequality” in their platforms. This allowed me to show how third parties pushed the two major parties toward some recognition of labor rights over time. There was obviously no way to get at this information through interviews or observations.

Finally, archival and historical sources are often used to supplement other qualitative data collection as a form of verification through triangulation. Perhaps you interviewed several Starbucks employees in 2021 about their experiences working for the company, particularly how the company responded to labor organizing attempts. You might also search official Starbucks company records to compare and contrast the official line with the experience of workers. Alternatively, you could collect media coverage of local organizing campaigns that might include quotes or statements from Starbucks representatives. The best and most convincing qualitative researchers often employ archival and historical material in this way. In addition to providing verification through triangulation, supplementing your data with these sources can deepen contextualization. I encourage you to think about what possible archival and historical sources could strengthen any interview or observational-based study you are designing.[5]

How to Find Archival and Historical Sources

People and institutions leave traces in a variety of ways. This section documents some of those ways with the hope that the possibilities listed here will inspire you to explore further.

It might help to distinguish between public and private sources. Many public archives have dedicated web addresses so you can search them from anywhere. More on those below. Private individuals are more likely to have donated personal information to particular archives, perhaps the archival center associated with the college they attended. Famous and not-so-famous people’s diaries and letters are often searchable in particular university archives. Each former US president has his (!) own dedicated national archive. Towns and cities often house interesting historical records in their public libraries. Archivists and librarians at special archives have often done monumental work creating and curating collections of various kinds. Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) is no exception. In addition to a ton of material related to the history of the university, including private diaries of students, financial aid records, and photographs of carpentry classes from the nineteenth century, the librarians have documented the experiences of LGBTQ people within OSU and Corvallis, the history of hops and brewing in the Northwest, and the history of natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, especially around agriculture and forestry.


Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives, The Douglas Strain Reading Room.
Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives, The Douglas Strain Reading Room (c) 2012 by Christy Turner. Used with permission.

It can be overwhelming to think about where to start. Being strategic about your use of archival and historical material is often a large part of an effective research plan. Here are some options for kinds of materials to explore:

Public archives include the following:

  1. Commercial media accounts. These are anything written, drawn, or recorded that is produced for a general audience, including newspapers, books, magazines, television program transcripts, drawn comics, and so on.
  • Where to find these: special collections, online newspaper/magazine databases, collected publications[6]
  • Examples: Time Magazine Vault is completely free and covers everything the magazine published from 1923 to today; Harper’s Magazine archives go back to 1859; Internet Archive’s Ebony collection is a wealth of historically important images and stories about African American life in the twentieth century and covers the magazine from 1945 to 2015.
  1. Actuarial and military records. These include birth and death records, records of marriages and divorces, applications for insurance and credit, military service records, and cemeteries (gravestones).
  • Where to find these: state archives/state vital records offices, US Census / government agencies, US National Archives
  • Examples: USAgov/genealogy will help you walk through the ordering of various vital records related to ancestry; US Census 1950 includes information on household size and occupation for all persons living in the US in 1950;[7] your local historical cemetery will have lots of information recorded on gravestones of possible historical use, as the case where deaths are clustered around a particular point in time or where military service is involved.
  1. Official and quasi-official documentary records. These include organization meeting minutes, reports to shareholders, interoffice memos, company emails, company newsletters, and so on.
  • Where to find these: Historical records are often donated to a special collection or are even included in an official online database. More recent records may have been “leaked” to the public, as in the case of the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016 or the Panama (2016) and Pandora (2021) Papers leaks. The National Archives are also a great source for official documentary records of the US and its various organizations and branches (e.g., Supreme Court, US Patent Office).
  • Examples: The Forest History Society’s Weyerhauser Collection holds correspondences, director and executive files, branch and region files, advertising materials, oral histories, scrapbooks, publications, photographs, and audio/visual items documenting the activities of the Pacific Northwest timber company from its inception in 1864 through to 2010; the National Archive’s Lewis and Clark documents include presidential correspondences and a list of “presents” received from Native Americans.
  1. Governmental and legislative documentary records
  • Where to find these: National Archives, state archives, Library of Congress, governmental agency records (often available in public libraries)
  • Example: Records of the Supreme Court of the United States are housed in the National Archives and include scrapbooks from 1880 to 1935 on microfilm, sound recordings, and case files going back to 1792.

Private archives include the following:

  1. Autobiographies and memoirs. These might have been published, but they are just as likely to have been written for oneself or one’s family, with no intention of publication. Some of these have been digitized, but others will require an actual visit to the site to see the physical object itself.
  • Where to find these: if not published, special collections and archives
  • Example: John Adger McCrary graduated from Clemson University in 1898, where he received a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering. After graduation, he was stationed at the Washington Navy Yard as senior mechanical engineer. He donated a 1939 unpublished memoir regarding the early days of Clemson College, which includes a description of the first dormitory being built by convict labor.
  1. Diaries and letters. These are probably not intended for publication; rather, they are contemporaneous private accounts and correspondences. Some of these have been digitized, but others will require an actual visit to the site to see the physical object itself.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives, Library of Congress for notable persons’ diaries and letters
  • Examples: Abraham Lincoln’s Papers housed in the Library of Congress; Diary of Ella Mae Cloake, an OSU student, from 1941 to 1944, documenting her daily activities as a high school and college student in Oregon during World War II, located in OSU Special Collections and Archives
  1. Home movies, videos, photographs of various kinds. These include drawings and sketches, recordings of places seen and visited, scrapbooks, and other ephemera. People leave traces in various forms, so it is best not to confine yourself solely to what has been written.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian
  • Example: The McMenamins Brewery Collection at OSU SCARC includes digitized brew sheets, digital images, brochures, coasters, decals, event programs, flyers, newspaper clippings, tap handles, posters, labels, a wooden cask, and a six-pack of Hammerhead beer.
  1. Oral histories. Oral histories are recorded and often transcribed interviews of various persons for purposes of historic documentation. To the untrained eye, they appear to be qualitative “interviews,” but they are in fact specifically excluded from IRB jurisdiction because their purpose is documentation, not research.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives; Smithsonian
  • Examples: Many archivists and librarians are involved in the collecting of such oral histories, often with a particular theme in mind or to strengthen a particular collection. For example, OSU’s SCARC has an Oregon Multicultural Archive, which includes oral histories that document the experiences and perspectives of people of color in Oregon. The Smithsonian is another great resource on a wide variety of historical events and persons.

How to Find Special Collections and Archives

Although much material has been “digitized” and is thus searchable online, the vast majority of private archival material, including ephemera like scrapbooks and beer coasters, is only available “on site.” Qualitative researchers who employ archival and historical sources must often travel to special collections to find the material they are interested in. Often, the material they want has never really been looked at by another researcher. It may belong to a general catalog entry (such as “Student Scrapbooks, 1930–1950”). For official records at the city or county level, travel to the records office or local public library is often required to access the desired material. You will want to consider what kinds of material are available and what kinds of access are required for that material in your research plan.

The good news is that, even if much material has not been digitized, there are general searchable databases for most archives. If you have a particular topic of interest, you can run a general web search and include the topic and “archives” or “special collection.” The more public and well known the entity, the more likely you will find digitally available material or special collections dedicated to the person or phenomenon. Or you might find an archive housed one thousand miles away that is happy to work with you on a visit. Some researchers become very familiar with a particular collection or database and tend to rely on that in their research. As you gain experience with historical documents, you will find it easier to narrow down your searches. One great place to start, though, is your college or university archives. And the librarians who work there will be more than happy to help answer your questions about both the particular collections housed there and how to do archival research in general.

What to Do with All That Content

Once you have found a collection or body of material, what do you do with that? Analyzing content will be discussed in some detail in chapter 17, but for now, let’s think about what can be made of this kind of material and what cannot. As Goldthorpe (2000) suggested, using historical material or traces left by people is sometimes second best to actually talking to people or observing them in action. We have to be very clear about recognizing the limitations of what we find in the archives.

First, not everything produced manages to survive the ravages of time. Without digitization, historical records are vulnerable to a host of destroyers. Some vital records get destroyed when the local registry burns down, for example. Some memoirs or diaries are destroyed from mildew while sitting in a box in the basement. Photographs get torn up. Boxes of records get accidentally thrown in the garbage. We call this the historical-trace problem. What we have in front of us is thus probably not the entire record of whatever it is we are looking for.

Second, what gets collected is itself often related to who has power and who is perceived as being worthy of recording and collection. This is why projects like OSU’s multicultural archives are so important, as librarians intervene to ensure that it is not only the stories (diaries, papers) of the powerful that are found in the archives. If one were to read all the newspaper editorials from the nineteenth century, one would learn a lot about particular White men’s thoughts on current events but very little from women or people of color or working-class people. This is the power problem of archives, and we need to be aware of it, especially when we are using historical material to build a context of what a time or place was like. What it was like for whom always needs to be properly addressed.

Third, there are issues related to truth telling and audience. There are no at-the-moment credibility checks on the materials you find in archives. Although we think people tend to write honestly in their personal journals, we don’t actually know if this is the case—what about the person who expected to be famous and writes for an imagined posterity? There could be significant gaps and even falsehoods in such an account. People can lie to themselves too, which is something qualitative researchers know well (and partly the reason ethnographers favor observation over interviews). Despite the absence of credibility checks, historical documents sometimes appear more honest simply by having survived for so long. It is important to remember that they are prone to all the same problems as contemporaneously collected data. A diary by a planter in South Carolina in the 1840s is no more and often less truthful to the facts than an interview would have been had it been possible. Newspapers and magazines have always targeted particular audiences—a fact we understand about our own media (e.g., Fox News is hardly “fair and balanced” toward Democrats) but something we are prone to overlook when reading historic media stories.

Whenever using archival or historical sources, then, it is important to clearly identify and state the limitations of their use and any intended audience. In the case of diaries of Southern planters from the 1840s, “This is the story we get told from the point of view of relatively elite White men whose work was collected and safeguarded (and not destroyed) for posterity.” Or in the case of a Harper’s Magazine story from the 1950s, “This is an understanding of Eisenhower politics by a liberal magazine read by a relatively well-educated and affluent audience.”


Collecting the data for an archival-based study is just the beginning. Once you have downloaded all the advertisements from Men’s Health or compiled all the tweets put out on January 6 or scanned all the photographs of the childcare center in the 1950s, you will need to start “analyzing” it. What does that analysis entail? That is the subject of our next several chapters.

Further Readings

Baker, Alan R. H. 1997. “‘The Dead Don’t Answer Questionnaires’: Researching and Writing Historical Geography.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 21(2):231–243. Among other things, this article discusses the problems associated with making geographical interpretations from historical sources.

Benzecry, Claudio, Andrew Deener, and Armando Lara-Millán. 2020. “Archival Work as Qualitative Sociology.” Qualitative Sociology 43:297–303. An editorial foreword to an issue of Qualitative Sociology dedicated to archival research briefly describing included articles (many of which you may want to read). Distinguishes the “heroic moment of data accumulation” from the “ascetic and sober exercise of distancing oneself from the data, analyzing it, and communicating the meaning to others.” For advanced students only.

Bloch, Marc. 1954. The Historian’s Craft. Manchester: Manchester University Press. A classic midcentury statement of what history is and does from a research perspective. Bloch’s particular understanding and approach to history has resonance for social science too.

Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. 1994. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–60. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.* Using corporate records, published advertisements, and congressional testimony (among other sources), Fones-Wolf builds an impressive account of a coordinated corporate campaign against labor unions and working people in the postwar years.

Hill, Michael R. 1993. Archival Strategies and Techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. Guidebook to archival research. For advanced students.

Moore, Niamh, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley, and Maria Tamboukou. 2017. The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge. An advanced collection of essays on various methodological ideas and debates in archival research.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.* A difficult but rewarding read for advanced students. Using archives in Indonesia, Stoler explores the history of colonialism and the making of racialized classes while also proposing and demonstrating innovative archival methodologies.

Wilder, Craig Stevens. 2014. Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. London: Bloomsbury.* Although perhaps more history than social science, this is a great example of using university archival data to tell a story about national development, racism, and the role of universities.



  1. This is where the word idiot comes from as well; in Ancient Greece, failing to participate in collective democracy making was seen as “idiotic”—or, put another way, selfish.
  2. This word also comes from Greek roots, although it was created recently (we often rummage around in Ancient Greek and Latin when we come up with new concepts!). In Greek, nomos (νομος) means “law.” The use here makes much of the generation of laws or regularities about the social world in the sense of Newton’s “law” of gravity.
  3. If this is your interest, see also chapter 17, “Content Analysis”!
  4. For those of you too young to remember, this was a standard plot of Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote (Frazier 1990).
  5. Note that this would be an example of strength through multiple methods rather than strength through mixed methods (chapter 15). The former deepens the contextualization, while the latter increases the overall validity of the findings.
  6. Such as that volume of party platforms I stumbled across in the library!
  7. US Census material becomes available to the public seventy years after collection; Census data from the 1950s recently became available for the very first time.


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Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.