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Archives Alive!: Researching Historical and Contemporary perspectives

For students working on the Archives Alive! assignment

Contextualizing your object

The following steps and the resources below will help you get started exploring the historical context of your object and finding contemporary perspectives. We'll be using an object found in the Iowa Digital Library as an example but the same steps apply for your chosen object.

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 object.

STEP TWO. Identify the relevant keywords about your object (place, time period, relevant persons, main events, etc.)

STEP THREE. Contextualize your object within its historical context by locating articles, documents, and other resources from the same time period.

STEP FOUR. Explore contemporary perspectives by locating current or recent articles, documents, and other resources that look at your object through a contemporary lens. 

STEP ONE. Find the collection guide and finding aid.

A collection guide, or finding aid, is a tool used to describe archival material created so that researchers can later have more information about a specific archival collection and its contents. You can often find biographical information, information about who donated the materials and when they were donated, and 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can then be turned into keywords for use as you search for additional resources that help you contextualize your chosen historical document. 

Let's explore the Iowa Digital Library. The Iowa Digital Library contains millions of digitized (scanned) images of archival materials that can be found within UI Libraries' Special Collection & University Archives. 

To search for a specific item (if you know exactly what you're looking for), type in the name of your subject or collection in the search box.

Suggested: To browse or explore what the Iowa Digital Library has, select browse collections in the right hand corner. This will allow you to visually see the collections available. 


Once you've selected an object of interest, scroll down for a complete description of the object and locate the link to the collection guide. You can use both the object description and collection guide to find relevant information and identify keywords.

STEP THREE. Locate 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 TWO. Identify 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.

Below is an object from the African American Women in Iowa Digital Collection. This picture of a woman posing with a bicycle is titled Arlene Roberts Morris posed with bicycle, Iowa City, Iowa? 1946. To learn more about this image, lets gather some important information from the photograph's description and the collection guide, in which the object is found. 

Keyword list:

  • Arlene Morris
  • Moline, Illinois
  • Iowa City, IA
  • University of Iowa
  • Eyes Magazine
  • 1940s
  • Iowa
  • Midwest
  • African Americans
  • African American Women 
  • African American Life and Culture

Can you think of any more words that would help you locate historical documents or find a more contemporary perspective to contexualize this document?

STEP FOUR: Explore 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.