Archival research does not have to be hard

Archival research is not like using Google or a library; it's almost exactly the opposite, which is why it's hard. Below, we have put together a lesson that will help you understand how records are created and kept, thus how archives are structured. Even basic knowledge on those two things makes it easier to do archival research.

The very first thing to know is the correct words. An "archives" is a noun; a place where non-current records live. To "archive" is a verb; the process by which we do archival work. An "archivist" is a person who does this work. The quickest way to impress your archivist is to say the word correctly. Cambridge Dictionary's UK prounciation is what most of us prefer. Promise, it's a thing.

This tutorial is focused on the structure of government archives, but the information contained is useful across the archival spectrum and is presented in an informal, conversational way. Soon, we will create a short video tutorial as well.


"If it's not online, then it doesn't exist!"

Until the 1980s, archival holdings were created in a variety of non-digital formats. That might be paper, photography, vinyl record, or a myriad of others that would have to be reformatted to be put online. Repositories have to find the staff, money, and equipment to not only care for the original item, but now the digital version of it, too. Most archives are chronically underfunded, and understaffed, so choices are made about what is digitized. The good news is that even though it's not online, it does in fact exist, and is not "lost". Despite media portrayal, things are not usually "lost in the archives." They simply haven't been requested. In fact, they are less "lost" in an archives than sitting in someone's house. As a researcher, that gives you access to records that others potentially have not seen, which is always exciting. If you don't see what you are looking for online, contact an archivist. Most of us love to help, and by doing so, it helps us know what to put our resources toward.

Why Is This So Hard?

The short answer is that archives are structured differently than libraries and Google, which is how most of us were taught to research. Look at the triangles below. The one on the left is probably how you were taught to research. You:

  1. Get your topic.
  2. Google that topic. Even if it's not what you are looking for, the results have some sort of relation.
  3. Go to the library, which is organized by a library standard. For example, in the Dewey decimal system, all the books related to Philosophy are grouped somewhere under the 100 code. It doesn't matter which library you are at; providing they use Dewey, that's where you are going to find them.
  4. Start compiling and organizing your sources. You are building the broader knowledge base about your topic.
  5. Compile that broad knowledge base into whatever your final product is.

See how the triangle is formed? Government archives work in the opposite direction.

Reaserch Triangle: Archival Research vs Other Research


See how the archives are organized exactly opposite of the research process you are most likely familiar with? To illustrate the concepts, we are going to use archival methodology to find a pint of dark chocolate/raspberry dairy ice cream in the grocery store.  Then we will cement them using actual NASA records.

How are records organized?

Each repository organizes or "arranges" records in the way that makes sense for their organization. Archival science typically advocates for descending level of arrangement, as to place the records in some sort of context. A common arrangement is Repository / Record Group or Subject / Collection / Series / File / Item.


Repository = Highest level of organization

Repository Diagram

In this case, our Repository is going to be the grocery store. It is the place where lots of disparate items are brought together and placed in some sort of logical order so that you can find what you are looking for.



Record Group/Subject = Classification


In archival research, you have to be able to differentiate between the records you want. This is often done by a Record Group, or Subject. Think of the various departments of the grocery store. Produce is its own record group, Dairy is its own, Meat, and so on. For our purposes, Frozen Foods is our Record Group/Subject.


Collection is the third level of description. Remember the triangles above? This is where we really start to find the records we are looking for. Think of all things in Frozen Food: vegetables, TV dinners, pizzas, desserts, etc. Because we are looking for ice cream, we will go to the dessert section where the pies, cakes, ice creams, Popsicles, etc., are kept. Dessert is our Collection. There is still a lot of choices in Dessert, though, so we go down another level.


Series are where you find the records you are looking for, but it's a hard concept to visualize. Records that are similar are grouped together, and while there can be overlap, they are distinct bodies. Within ice creams, we have dairy ice cream, non-dairy ice creams, frozen yougurt, sorbet, and gelato, just to name a few. Their differences are subtle to someone who is not an ice cream fan, but for those that know, the differences are distinct. Since we are looking for the dark chocolate/raspberry dairy ice cream, we will look there.


See how we are narrowing down our triangle? We started at the Grocery Store and are now down to Dairy Ice Cream. We are almost there!

Dairy ice cream comes in a multitude of flavors and styles. There is chocolate, vanilla, all the fruit flavors, plain ice cream, ice cream with things added in and so on. Think of the freezer in your grocery store. Each product is kept in its own rows on the shelf. Those rows are your folders. They sit in a tidy, organized fashion (theoretically!) across the shelf in the same way that folders sit in a tidy, organized fashion (also theoretically!) in the archival box. Inside those rows are single pints, or items. Now we find the row holding our pint of dark chocolate/raspberry.


Success! There, mere inches from our hands, is our single pint of dark chocolate/raspberry. Let's look again at how we got there, conceptually.



Full Progression

See how that happened? We went in search of a pint of ice cream, but in order to do so we had to do the following:

Repository = Grocery store

Record Group = Frozen Food
frozen food

Collection = Dessert

Series = Dairy Ice Cream
ice cream

Files = Chocolate
ice cream

Item =  Dark Chocolate/Rasperry
ice cream

So, while that was fun, how does that help one understand how to find records? Let us imagine that we are researching US and Russian space cooperation in the 1960s. How do we use the above lesson to help us find that?  Look at the order listed. First, we identify the repository.

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    Now that we are looking for NASA records, the first two logical places where records on this topic may be housed is either NASA Archives or the National Archives (NARA). Both of these have Center and Regional facilities where your records may be located.

    For this tutorial, our repository the NASA HQ Archives.

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    Record Group/Subject

    At NASA HQ Archives, we don't use record group numbers the way NARA does; most are divided by subject. At this point, finding aids and archivists become invaluable. In the previous example, by virtue of time and experience in the grocery store, we simply know that chocolate ice cream is in the frozen food section, but now we have to work a little harder. That's why archivists are so important; they have the time and experience with their collections to be able to help. For now, International Cooperation seems the sort of thing that happens at the Administrator/Deputy Administrator office, as opposed to a research and development program.

    Our Subject is going to be the Administrator/Deputy Administrator files.

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    There have been a number of Administrators and Deputy Administrators, so how do we narrow that down? Since we are working in the 1960s, we can bypass everyone from the ’50s, and past the ’70s. According to this list, we can narrow it down to:

    Administrators: Webb and Paine

    Deputy Administrators: Dryden, Seamans, and Paine.

    Now that we know our Repository, Subject, and Collection, it's time to identify the series that we want, because this is where the records are.

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    Archives use a variety of ways to let people know what they have. One way is to use a finding aid. A finding aid is literally that. It's a way to find out if a repository has, or doesn't have, what you are looking for. They can also help you find things that you didn't know you were looking for. There is no "One Way" to create a finding aid, so expect them to look different, even at the same facility.

    Go back to ice cream for a moment. Even within chocolate ice cream, there are different kinds of chocolate. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate are only a few examples. The Administrator/Deputy Administrator records are the same way. There are often subject files, chronological files, reading files, correspondence files, and so on. While the differences may not be obvious to us, each had its own role in the Administrator's work. It's a bit in our nature to think that all the records on a topic should be recompiled according to that topic, but government archival records are kept in the context in which they were used and created. Remember the triangle?

    How do we actually get to the finding aids? Many repositories put their finding aids online. NASA HQ's are found in two different ways. The first, which are sorted by subject, are here. The second, which are sorted simply by the date on which they were created, are here. For expediency's sake, the Administrator and Deputy Adminstrator's finding aids are here.  This page is sorted alphabetically, so look for Dryden, Paine, Seamans and Webb. When you click on their names, their PDFs open in a new tab.

    Look through the finding aids. See how they are structured by folder title? That takes us to our next level of description.

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    All of our finding aids are text-searchable. Records are working files from the period in which they are created, and vocabulary changes. In Dryden's, if you do a keyword search for our topic, Russian/US cooperation, nothing comes up, and neither does Russia. That's because when the records were created, the proper name was Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. If you search for USSR in Dryden's finding aid, 14 hits come up, on exactly the topic we are looking for. We would then make notes of the boxes that we want to see; boxes 13 and 14 look particularly promising. Seamans' finding aid didn't produce hits on "Russia" or "USSR", but has a little bit about Department of Defense cooperation. It doesn't mean that there isn't something related in there, but it does mean that Dryden's collection is likely going to be more fruitful. The others may indeed hold some information, but we would need to know more. For now, let's focus on Dryden's finding aid.

    Boxes 13 and 14 hold folder titles such as:

    • Executive Sessions of the Sen. Foreign Relations Committee, Jun. 1, 1960 (U2 Incident)
    • US-USSR MOU, March 20, 1963
    • DR. Dryden – A. Blagonrarov: Rome 1963
    • US-USSR MOU, June 6, 1964 Blagonrarov – Dryden meeting Argentin
    • 1963 US-USSR Negotiations
    • US/USSR Bilaterals Negotiation Backup – Oct. 1964
    • Dryden – Blagonrarov Letters
    • Dryden – US-USSR Agreement on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – signed by Hugh L. Dryden (NASA), A.A. Blagonrarov (USSR AcadSciences) – June 8,       1962, Geneva, Switzerland
    • Dryden – US –USSR Peaceful Uses of Outer Space 1962
    • Dryden – International Cooperation 1960-1963
    • Dryden – USSR Negotiations GENEVA May 1963
    • Dryden –US-USSR peaceful uses of outer space Sep ‘62 Dryden – May – June 1962 US/USSR mtgs Geneva, Switz Dryden – Joint US-USSR Talks 1962
    • UN-Ad Hoc Com Peaceful Uses (1959) Federal Council for Science and Technology
    • Dryden – Miscellaneous Materials 1959 Dryden –Space Act Amendment 1960 Dryden – Personnel

      Inside these folders are the individual items that we are looking for to support our research topic. Folder-level finding aids do not tell a researcher specifically what documents are inside, so we need to request assistance from our archivist. Every facility does this differently, according to their resources. At HQ, once this level of research is reached, we encourage researchers to make appointments to come and view the materials, or direct them to our Document Management System, where our digitized content lives.



Once you understand that it is going to be backwards, it makes it so much easier to understand. To best help your archivist help you, use the following guide.

1) Know what Record Group or Subject Classification you want to ask about.

2) Know what Collection you want to talk about, even if it's a bit vague.

3) Ask if they have any series-level finding aids that may contain information on your topic.

4) If there are box lists, highlight the box numbers that contain folder titles that you might want to look at.

5) That will get you to the item level, which is where you are going to find your information.

6) Government archives are people's working papers. Expect to look through quite a bit of material; you likely aren't going to find what you are looking for in under 180 characters.