GLS 592: Applied Archival Research
Instructor: James Burke - burkej AT uncw DOT edu
Overall Description and Rationale for Applied Archival Research
This course is a seminar/practicum that provides students with practical experience in efficiently
locating, retrieving, and critical analyzing primary source materials in special collections and
archives in the context of a comprehensive research design leading to the preparation of a thesis
or final project. Students will be given an opportunity to learn the technique of archival research
during class time and through their individual projects in Special Collections in William Madison Randall Library, the archives of the New Hanover County Register of Deeds, the North
Carolina Room at the New Hanover County Library, and several museums in Wilmington. Regularly scheduled seminars will address research methods and evaluate the progress of
individual and group research. Special attention will be given to discussion of the common problems associated with archival research and proper citation of findings.
The types of primary sources materials to be addressed during the term include printed and handwritten
archival documents (legislation, reports, deeds, wills, court records, collections of papers, and historic newspapers), historic and contemporary statistical data (census data, tax records,
corporate and government reports, environmental data), archival maps (historic maps and atlases,
the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, cadastral maps, railroad and highway surveys, etc.), and
images (archival photographs, aerial and satellite images, drawings and illustrations, archival film, microfilm, and video sources), and artifacts (museum collections).
The records contained within the archives of government agencies and the special collections
housed in libraries and museums constitute a wealth of descriptive information and raw data that
can be utilized in scholarly research across disciplines. Not limited to text, these resources span
the breadth of information mediums and represent a sampling of human technology and
intellectual activity; therefore archival research must be interdisciplinary. One must understand the social, scientific, and humanistic context that embraces their creation, be able to interpret the
particular nature of their contents, and critically analyze the information they impart. It is a given
that scholars concerned with phenomena occurring in the physical/human environment begin their work with a review of current literature on their topic, then continue their program of research through the collection of raw data in the laboratory or in the field, and/or a systemic examination of archival resources. Regardless of the methodology of the study, it cannot be undertaken in a haphazard fashion; the result would be incomplete and/or inaccurate data leading to results that cannot be verified.
For the researcher using archival resources, numerous pitfalls exist, including, but not limited to:
being unfamiliar with the classes of archival materials that can be utilized in the study; not
knowing where specific classes of materials are located, or how they are organized at different
facilities; an unstructured “treasure hunt” approach to examining the materials in a special
collection or archive; unfamiliarity or disregard for the protocols involved with handling archival
documents and artifacts; lacking the training to recognize or interpret the form, style, or purpose of different classes of documents; having insufficient experience reading handwritten script from
different periods; and being unable to recognize internal errors with archival documents
(misspellings, arithmetic errors, misidentifications, and missing information resulting from damage). Even if the researcher is able to negotiate the common problems associated with special collections and archives, a hierarchy of creditably with primary sources exists, ranging from casual observation to official document. The researcher must recognize the necessity to verify findings within this structure.
The citation of archival resources in academic writing is complex. Often the materials
(documents and artifacts) contained within a collection are one of a kind; and even out-of-print published materials contained in these collections might be difficult or impossible to find at other locations. For this reason, the researcher must acquire the practice of citing the sources completely and accurately. Likewise, citations for web-based archived documents and data are equally detailed and must be approached with diligence.
Last Update: August 28, 2015