Using archives in dissertations or theses
This page is part of a series of subject guides for the Archives Hub.
Why should I use archives in my PhD dissertation or thesis?
Using special collections - diaries, manuscripts, letters, photographs, registers, maps, recordings, artwork, ephemera, etc. - can make a huge difference to your research.
Special collections and archives provide access to primary source material, which is typically un-published, and offers first-hand accounts and un-mediated documents relating to historical events. The material may be paper-based or it may be digital (sometimes you will be given access to digitised copies of paper-based archives).
Archives are an important means to include the original work that is required for a PhD.
How do I start to locate and work with archives?
It is not necessarily useful to simply use a general search engine. Archives are not easy to find in this way and you will miss a great deal. You need to use a specialised service. Remember that most archives are not digital, so you cannot necessarily access them online. Many repositories do allow you to take digital copies, but you need to be aware of the terms and conditions (which are individual to each institution and depend upon the nature and fragility of the materials).
If you are part of a University, their archives and special collections is a really good place to begin (usually located in the library). Don't feel apprehensive about just turning up and asking the archivist for information and advice. That is what they are there for. If you are interested in a particular topic, there might be a specialised repository, for example, for modern art, the Henry Moore Institute or the Paul Mellon Centre. Try searching the Archives Hub list of repositories by place or subject area, or just browse to get an idea of the types of institutions that hold archives. Don't hesitate to contact any of them simply to ask for advice about your research. They may have a newly catalogued collection that is all ready for exploration!
There are also a number of useful guides on the Web. The University of Leeds has a very good section on Using archives for research, with a number of case studies and links to various useful resources.
The Archives Hub has a Guide to Using Archives for the Inexperienced, which offers a useful introduction for those completely new to the area.
For a much more in-depth read, the Oxbridge Essays site has a Guide to dissertation primary research.
The National Archives has tutorials on Latin and paleography (the reading of old documents).
Should I search across different archives and collections?
You may find archives for your research area in many different repositories. Don't assume that a repository won't cover a subject because it does not specialise in that subject. A subject-based repository is a good place to start. For example, if you are working in zoology, the Museum of Zoology is a good place to contact. But archives can be found in unlikely places. A search on the Archvies Hub for zoology indicates that there are archives across the UK that might be relevant for you.
An archive collection is typically the material generated or collected by one person over a lifetime, or one organisation during the course of their activities, and so it is not necessarily subject-specific. This is why it can be hard to find relevant materials for your research - archives are generally not purposely created to cover a subject area; they are materials gathered together in the course of a person's life or one organisation's activities, so they can include all sorts of surprises.
How do I start to use the Archives Hub?
The 'core' search on the main search page is a starting point. This search covers key fields - title, scope & content (description), creator, index terms. These are the most likely to give relevant results for a subject search.
Think about various search terms - if your initial search does not yield useful results, think about other terms that might work. Try entering a very general search, but use the filters to narrow it down. Be prepared to explore. For example, if your research relates to the history of the novel, you can search for this term, but then have a look at the related subject areas - poetry, literature, fiction, children's literature, etc. Maybe use the date filter if you only want the 19th century.
What if am interested in particular people or organisations?
You can search for people and organisations by using the core search. You may want to put the search term into quotation marks, to retrieve the specific string, for example "beatrice webb" or "church of england".
When you search by 'name' or subject' on the Hub, you will only get archives that have been indexed with those terms. Archive collections are generally only indexed with significant names and subjects, but your search may not match these terms, so be prepared to explore. However, it is a good way to get results that are significantly about your subject. For example, if you search for 'church' as a general search, you will get over 40,000 results; if you search for it as a subject you will get around 1,000 results.
Are there other ways to search by subject?
You can try our features. Go to our feature list and browse, or search for keywords. We have features on a huge range of topics. These can be a good starting point. For example, if you are interested in antarctic exploration, the feature on William Spiers Bruce might be very relevant, and features link to related materials as well..