Basics of Archival Research

Conducting research can be challenging, but the good news is that it is a skill that can be developed. While the principles of research apply to most archives, there are some differences from place to place. Here are some helpful tips for researching at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

It all starts with the research question.

Give some thought to what you are asking and what you hope to find. If your research question/topic is too broad, try to narrow it down. (For example, if you want to research civil rights, a quick search on our website will yield over 3,500 results.) Conversely, if your topic is too narrow and your searches don’t yield any results, try to think more broadly.

Familiarize yourself with how the archives is organized.

Before you begin researching at any archives facility, it is important to know how they organize their materials (documents, photographs, film, etc.). At the JFK Library, our materials are organized at the collection level. Collections are typically a group of materials created or used by an individual or organization. We have collections of individual personal papers, like Burke Marshall, and collections of organizations, like the Democratic National Committee. See a list of all of our collections.

Spend some time searching our digital archives.

Most archives will have resources available on their site to help you with your research.  At the JFK Library, we have listings of our collections, finding aids, and research guides that will help you. You also can search for digitized content. Take good notes about what you’re seeing. Remember to check what collection a document, photograph, folder, or box is from, as you will need that to request access or reproductions. Be sure to check out our Search Help page, too.

Contact an archivist.

We are here to help. While we cannot conduct exhaustive research on your behalf, we will do our best to answer your questions. The best way to reach us is by email. (Please keep in mind that archivists may need up to 10 business days to search our collections and respond to you.) If you want to conduct research on site, we strongly encourage you to contact an archivist before making arrangements for travel, as we can’t guarantee we can accommodate those without confirmed appointments. Researchers who contact us in advance about their interests also have the most successful visits; the more prepared we are for your visit, the better we can help you find what you need.

Familiarize yourself with some archival terminology.

While no one expects you to be a professional archivist, you’ll be better able to communicate your needs and find what you’re looking for if you can recognize specialized vocabulary. The Society of American Archivists has a searchable glossary for common words that you will run across on our website or when speaking to an archivist.

Research takes time.

Archival research is not comparable to a Google search. That’s because most archives are designed to point you toward an entire folder, box, or even collection, so that you can see individual documents and other items in their original context. Be prepared to spend some time browsing through finding aids, reading through documents, or looking at photographs. Sometimes you may not find exactly what you are looking for, and that’s okay. It might be in another archives, or it might not even exist! Learn to enjoy the process, celebrate your successes along the way, and get in touch with an archivist if you get stuck - that’s why we’re here!