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How to... use secondary data and archival material

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Gaining access to, and using, archives

Archives may be found in national collections, such as the UK's Public Record Office, or as smaller collections associated with national, local or federal government organizations, academic libraries, professional or trade associations, or charities; they may also be found in companies. The latter are generally closely controlled; the former are most likely to be publically available. This page gives a brief overview of how to gain access to archival collections, and what you can expect when you get there.


An archival collection, even an open one, is not like a library where you can just turn up. You need to establish opening hours, and then make arrangements to visit.

It is best to write ahead explaining:

  1. Your project
  2. Precisely what it is you are looking for.

In order to be clear about point 2, you will need to know not only the precise scope of your research but also how this particular collection can help you. You will therefore need to spend time researching (perhaps more than one) collection, so make sure that this is allowed for in your research plan.

You also need to understand the key difference between libraries and archives:

Locating sources

Bibliographic databases are good sources for finding archival collections: you can search by subject, keyword, personal or geographical name. Whilst not containing records of each item, catalogue records of archival collections are generally lengthier than for published materials and may include a summary of materials contained in the collection.

More detailed information about the collection, usually at the level of the box or folder, is found in Finding Aids.

You can find suitable databases through your library's Subject Guides. Other sources are described below:

Gaining access to commercial collections

As indicated above, commercial archival or document collections are more tightly controlled than public ones, access to which will depend upon a clearly stated request and proof of identity.

Commercial sources, by contrast, may require more negotiation, and more convincing, because of the perceived sensitivity of their material and the fact that they exist for their customers and shareholders, and not as an archival collection. Companies understandably count the opportunity cost of time spent "helping a researcher with their enquiries", not to mentioning opening up possibly sensitive documents to the prying eyes of an outsider.

This can cause problems to the researcher because if the research project is based on one or a few companies, if access is denied then the overall validity of the research will be prejudiced. Given the likelihood that other research methods, such as interview, survey etc. are also being used, it is best to approach access in the widest sense, and stress the benefits to the organization, the credibility of the researcher, and assurance of confidentiality.

Printed from: on Friday July 19th, 2019
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