A Student Researcher’s Top Tips for Starting Archival Research

By: Ethan Small

Ethan Small

Research Intern

During the Summer of 2022, I was fortunate enough to spend some time exploring a local archive for a research project as a student at Huron University College, in London, Ontario. This archive was one of many Anglican Church archives scattered across Canada, and it contained a wealth of documents from congregations in the area. The records I dealt with were dated from 1830 to about 1950, and dealt primarily with churches located on and around nearby reserves. This was my first time doing archival work, and I’ll admit that I was nervous.

Because the materials I was working with were connected to nearby reserves, it was imperative that these documents be handled with extra care. In preparation for my research, I completed training to learn the principals of OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession) through the First Nations Information Governance Centre. This training emphasized the importance of Indigenous ownership and influence over Indigenous documents, including archival materials and the research based on said materials. If your research involves Indigenous materials, ensure you are in contact with the communities connected to these materials. Communities must have control over their own data, and this includes control over the collection of data from archives and publication of findings based on said data. In the case of my research, it was my supervising Professor who was connected to educators from the community related to the records I was examining, and they worked together to establish the project I have been a part of. I have also made the choice not to name the community here in the interest of protecting privacy. Whether you are a first-time researcher or a seasoned historian, it is important to consider the ethical implications of your archival research. Consider how your work could be used or abused by others and how the existence and sharing of certain types of documents connect to current equity issues. Particularly if you are not from the community you are researching, consider how your work will impact marginalized communities, and work to ensure these communities are involved in your project and in control of the sharing of sensitive materials.

Visiting an archive for the first time can be an exciting but overwhelming experience. I hope by sharing my experiences and tips in this guide, I can help to ease your fears and leave you feeling better prepared to begin research of your own! If you have never been to an archive, I would highly recommend you look into it. It is a valuable experience for anyone, whether you are a student, a hobbyist or are partaking in research for the first time. Anyone can benefit from new types of learning, especially since there are many types of archives, meaning there is something of interest for everyone.

Reading letters in the archives, London, Ontario, 2022. Image is courtesy of the author and has been edited to remove identifying information.

Tip #1 Do Your Research

Tip #2 Read the Rules

Tip #3 Spend Your Time Wisely

Tip #4 Don’t Be Afraid to Explore

Folders in the archives, London, Ontario, 2022. Image is courtesy of the author and has been edited to remove identifying information.

In my own experience, learning to use an archive was a bit nerve-wracking at first, but it quickly became exciting as I realized I had the opportunity to study fascinating local history. I started out by learning to read Parish Registers. Parish Registers are records created by ministers from various Christian denominations, which document births, baptisms, deaths and other important information related to a church’s congregation. The first Parish Records I viewed were produced over a period of several decades, from the 1840s to the 1900s. Initially, I was thrown by the strange handwriting and unfamiliar spellings, but after a few days with these records, I could distinguish each minister’s handwriting, and could decipher most of the text. I began to recognize family names, and traced generations through records of their births, marriages and deaths. I read the meeting minutes for church meetings, and saw the ways in which different individuals were involved within their communities. Even records that might not seem so interesting, such as church financial records, had interesting stories within. Listed among their expenses were building repairs from when the weather took a toll on the building, food budgets for church picnics and fellowship groups, and donations sent to outside communities experiencing financial need.

I remember spending a great deal of time on documents created by a specific minister who lived in the area beginning in the late 1830s. It was an exciting day when the archivist told me she’d found a photograph of him, and we looked at it together. Suddenly I could put a face to the name I had read countless times. Within the archive, there were troubling discoveries, amazing stories, information which expanded my project and information that had no relation at all but was interesting nonetheless. There were days dedicated to plugging in Parish Register records into my computer, and days where I was able to follow interesting threads through various boxes of documents.

Archival research is an exciting and rewarding process! In the archives, researchers are able to get just about as close to the past as is possible. We can read the handwriting of people who lived long before us, analyze early photographs, hand drawn maps and other images, and are able to learn about the world as it was decades or even centuries ago! While the large filing cabinets and boxes of documents can be intimidating, with a bit of preparation, care and help from the archivist, fear will turn to excitement at the possibilities these records hold! The best advice I can give is to always ask questions. If you are unsure of something, the archivist is your best source of help, and as you work, questions will arise from to documents themselves. Follow that curiosity, work diligently, and you will soon find that archival research is immensely rewarding. You never know what you might find!