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How to... use secondary data and archival material

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Using archival data

What are they?

Archival, or documentary secondary data, are documentary records left by people as a by product of their eveyday activity. They may be formally deposited in an archive or they may just exist as company records.

Historians make considerable use of archival material as a key research technique, using a wide range of personal documents such as letters, diaries, household bills, which are often stored in some sort of formal "archive".

Business researchers talk about "archival research" because they use many of the same techniques for recording and analysing information. Companies, by their very nature, tend to create records, both officially in the form of annual reports, declarations of share value etc., and unofficially in the e-mails, letters, meeting minutes and agendas, sales data, employee records etc. which are the by-product of their daily activities.

If you are studying a business and management related subject, you may make use of archival material for a number of reasons:

  • Your research takes a historical perspective, and you want to gain insight into management decisions outside the memories of those whom you interview.
  • Archival research is an important tool in your particular discipline – for example, finance and accounting.
  • You wish to undertake archival research as part of qualitative research in order to triangulate with interviews, focus groups etc., or perhaps as exploratory research prior to the main research.
  • You may be undertaking a case study, or basing your research project on your own organization; in either case, you should look at company documents as part of this research.


In "Financial reporting and local government reform – a (mis)match?" (Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, Vol. 2 No. 2), Robyn Pilcher uses archival research – "Data was obtained from annual reports provided electronically to the DLG and checked against hard copies of these reports and supporting notes" – and interviews as exploratory research to investigate use of flawed financial figures by political parties, before carrying out a detailed examination of a few councils.

"Coalport Bridge Tollhouse, 1793-1995" (Structural Survey, Vol. 14 No. 4) is a historical study of this building drawing on such documents as maps, plans, photos, account books, meeting minutes, legal opinions and census records.

As distinct from published data sets, you will have to record and process the data yourself, in order to create your own data set.

Sometimes this archival material will be stored in "official" archives, such as the UK Public Record Office. Mostly however, it will be company specific, stored in official company archives or perhaps in smaller collections in individual departments or business units. Records can exist in physical or electronic form – the latter commonly on the company intranet.


Whatever the company's archiving policy, there is no doubt that businesses provide a rich source of data. Here is a (non exhaustive) list of the forms that data can take:

  • Organizational records – for example HR, accounts, pay roll data etc.
  • Data referring to the sales of goods or services
  • Project files
  • Organization charts                
  • Letters
  • E-mails
  • Faxes
  • Meeting minutes and agendas
  • Reports
  • Diaries
  • Sales literature: catalogues, copies of adverts, brochures etc.
  • Annual reports
  • Reports to shareholders
  • Transcripts of speeches
  • Non textual material: maps and plans, videos, tapes, photographs.

Management Information Systems can hold a considerable amount of data. For example, the following HR records may be held:

  • data on recruitment, e.g. details of vacancies, dates, job details and criteria
  • staff employment details, for example job analysis and evaluation, salary grades, terms and conditions of employment, job objectives, job competencies, performance appraisals
  • data relevant to succession and career planning, e.g. the effects of not filling jobs
  • management training and development, e.g. training records showing types of training.

Source: Peter Kingsbury (1997), IT Answers to HR Questions, CIPD.

The media (newspapers, magazines, advertisements, television and radio programmes, books, the Internet) can also throw valuable light on events, and media sources should not be ignored.

Key considerations

There are a number of points to consider when using archival material:

  • You will need to gain access to the company, and this may prove difficult (see the "Gaining access to, and using, archives" section in this guide). On the other hand, if you are doing a report/project on your own organization, access may be a lot easier, although even here you should gain agreement to access and use of material.
  • Even if you are successful in gaining access to the company, it may be difficult and time-consuming to locate all the information you need, especially if the company does not have a clear archiving policy, and you may need to go through a vast range of documents.
  • The data may be incomplete, and may not answer your research question – for example, there may be a gap in records, correspondence may be one-sided and not include responses.
  • The data may be biased, in other words it will be written by people who have a particular view. For example, meeting minutes are the "official" version and often things go on in meetings which are not recorded; profitability in annual reports may be reported in such a way as to show a positive rather than a true picture.
  • Informal and verbal interactions cannot be captured.
  • Archival research is time-consuming, both in locating and in recording documents, so for that reason may not be feasible for smaller projects.
  • You will also need to decide how to record data: historians are used to laboriously copying out documents considered too frail to photocopy, and business researchers may need to resort to this if (as is likely) company documents are considered confidential, although in such cases, note-taking may also be out. You will also need to find a suitable way of coding and referring to particular documents.
  • Finally, you will need to construct your own data set, for which you will need to have a particular research method.


In "Participatory group observation – a tool to analyse strategic decision-making" (Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 5 No. 1), Christine Vallaster and Oliver Koll highlight the benefit of multiple methods for studying complex issues, it being thus possible to supplement the weaknesses of one method with the strengths of another and study a phenomenon from a diversity of views, and achieve a high degree of validity. In the case in question, archival research was used to analyse documents (organization charts, company reports, memos, meeting minutes), and whilst the limitations in terms of incompleteness, selectivity, and not being authored by interviewees were acknowledged, so was their supporting value to interviews, and the same textual analysis method was used for both methods.

Further sources of information

If you want to find out more about archives, there are a couple of excellent tutorials on the Web: