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Archives Alive!: Researching the Historical Context - Other Archival Documents

For students working on the Archives Alive! assignment

Contextualizing your document

The following steps and the resources provided in each box can help get you started exploring the historical context surrounding your chosen archival document. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. If you need additional assistance locating additional information, please contact one of your friendly librarians. We're available by chat, email, and drop-in or scheduled appointments.

STEP ONE. Find the collection guide associated with your document.

STEP TWO. Identify and develop relevant keywords about your document.

STEP THREE. Use keywords to help you locate historical documents that help contextualize your document.

STEP FOUR. In some cases, you may want to explore contemporary conversations surrounding broader topics and ideas related to your document.

STEP ONE: Finding archival collection guides

A collection guide, or finding aid, is the tool used to describe archival material so researchers can find them. You can often find biographical information, information about who donated the materials and when they were donated, along with more detailed descriptions of individual items contained in the collection. Collection guides are excellent places for locating background information about your topic. And, this information can then turn into keywords for use as you search for additional resources that help you contextualize your chosen historical document. 

The following uses the Library of Congress Digital Collections as an example but locating finding aids/collection guides/collection descriptions will require different steps across unique archival collections.

If you are doing your search at the Library of Congress Digital Collections Page you will be able to easily locate the collection description/finding aid here:

If you are unable to locate the collection guide or finding aid, you can use individual archival item descriptions, when available, to develop a better understanding of the context. The example provided below is a digital image found in the Library of Congress Digital Collections. At the item level - shown in the screenshot below -- we can use a variety of details about the item that might be relevant as we develop keywords and directions to take our research. You might also click on the other collection links provided in the 'Part of' box in the right hand side. While these links won't take you to the finding aids, you can locate other items in those collections though them.

STEP TWO. Finding keywords

Reading over your document and the archival collection guide, look for names, dates, places, organizations, and other specific words, phrases, or topics you can search for.

A page from the Evelyn Birkby collection

From this example, from the Evelyn Birkby World War II Scrapbook, 1942-1944, what terms, phrases, or pictured things jump out at you? Check out the finding aid of the collection, as well as this specific document's object description available in the Iowa Digital Library (scroll to the bottom). What other terms or phrases catch your eye?

We started listing a few possible keywords here. Which other keywords would you add?

STEP THREE. Locating historical documents

The databases and resources below let you look up a variety of types of information including newspapers, census data, and more. Which sources are most relevant to the document you are analyzing?  

STEP THREE+. Locating Digital Collections

Need to locate other digital materials related to your document for use in your final project? Check out the resources provided on our Digital Collections - History Page.

STEP FOUR: Exploring contemporary perspectives

The documents contained in DIY History provide a glimpse into the lived experiences of individuals engaged with a variety of issues and situations, including a collection of documents related to social justice related issues and actions. Understanding the historical context is important but exploring these and other topics from a contemporary perspective can provide insight on the lasting impact of the actions and work of individuals included in DIY History. To gain a contemporary perspective, you might explore your document and related topics by searching the following tools and databases.

Citing sources

Need help citing your audio/visual sources for this assignment? Check out the Citation Help Guide. Use the drop down menus available for each citation format to find what you're looking for.