How to Do Archival Research

All of the documents and objects shared on this site were found in either the American University Archives or the Washington College of Law Archives. The resources in these archives are available for you to explore, but many people aren’t quite sure where to begin with archival research.

In case that sounds like you, this page offers some guidance on what archives are and how to use archival documents in your research, as well as what you can find in the AU Archives and how you can visit them.

What’s in an archive?

Archives house primary source materials of enduring value that were created organically during the course of an individual’s or organization’s lifetime. These primary sources document the lives and work of the people who created them.

It’s important to remember that most of these primary sources weren’t created with the long-term goal of ending up in an archive. The people who created them weren’t trying to document history, only to record something of their lives. It’s up to you to make meaning of what they recorded. 

Conducting archival research can be both frustrating and thrilling. Sometimes you find something that raises new questions you hadn’t considered, or that stops short of answering your research question, which is always frustrating. But when luck is on your side, it’s as satisfying as piecing together a puzzle. Sometimes you come across just the document you were hoping to find, and a story unravels before you.


"Who was Mary Graydon and what has her building been?", The Eagle, 30 January 1976

When we were just starting to explore Mary Graydon’s files, for example, we came across this article from The Eagle, which has a heading that states that she “promoted women’s education,” but the article doesn’t list a source. As we were researching women, we were very excited by the idea of Mary Graydon specifically supporting women’s education. However, for quite a while, we couldn’t find any sources mentioning this support other than the Eagle article, which was published 50 years after Mary Graydon’s death. Given the gap in time, we didn’t think the article’s claim was credible without additional support.

Letter from John W Graydon to Hurst 02-15-1894 1_111.jpg

Letter to Bishop John Fletcher Hurst from John W. Graydon, 15 February 1894

We searched through a significant number of files before we finally found what we were looking for: a letter from John W. Graydon stating that Mary Graydon was “inclined to make a donation…to the American University as a fund or foundation for the education of Women.” The puzzle pieces clicked into place. We had an answer that deepened our understanding of the elusive Mary Graydon. Our story was coming together!

That’s just one example of many—conducting research in the archives can cause some frustration, but it can also yield thrilling victories and breakthroughs that help you to understand a new story. The archives are full of stories like Mary Graydon’s, and they’re all ready to be discovered. 

But how do you discover these stories?

Researching in the archives isn’t like reading a history book with a clear and straightforward narrative. Primary sources are indispensable to understanding the past, but learning how to work with them takes a little practice.

The following are some tips for making the most of your archival research.

  • Always leave plenty of time to carry out your research. You'll need plenty of time to do careful and thorough research—you can't rush it!
  • Before you start looking for primary sources in the archives, it’s a good idea to look through relevant secondary sources first. A little research prior to your visit to the archives will help you understand the necessary historical context of your research topic, as well as helping you determine key people, places, organizations, and dates to look out for.
  • When you’re in the archives, keep that context in mind! You should also bear in mind the context of the documents you’re looking at: who created them and when? How do they relate to each other?
  • Remember that primary sources aren’t free of bias, nor are they always accurate. With each document, be sure to determine the author’s purpose in creating it and any issues that might undermine their credibility. Consider:
    • The date it was created: How close to the event the document discusses was it created? The more immediate, the better—an author writing about an event that’s just transpired is more likely to write an accurate account than an author writing about an event that happened six months before.
    • The author: Was the author an eyewitness to the event the document discusses, or were they an expert on the topic at hand? How credible and reliable are they?
    • The intended audience: Whom was the author writing the document for? For example, a newspaper or a legal document may have a significantly different tone and different content than a diary entry or a letter to the author’s best friend.
  • If you do think your source may be biased or inaccurate, make sure you consult other accounts and compare them. You should always verify the information in the document with other sources.
  • Remember that archives staff members are always willing to lend you their expertise! If you need help locating or understanding records that will be useful to your research, let them know—they’re happy to assist you!

For more information about archives and how to work with primary sources, check out these guides:

What’s in the AU Archives?

The American University Archives chronicle the history of American University from its founding in 1893 to the present. They include audiovisual materials, correspondence, minutes, reports, photographs, university publications, and more.

Records are organized into broad subject groups and include the following categories:

  • Early History
  • University Publications
  • Administrative and Faculty Records
  • Records of Academic Units
  • Records of Student Groups and Organizations
  • Records Related to Buildings and Grounds
  • Theses, Dissertations, and Honors Capstones

The AU Archives offer several digital collections that you can explore online:

There’s plenty for you to discover in these resources—we found a lot of information for this website in old issues of The Courier! However, the majority of Archives and Special Collections materials are not available online, so you’ll need to take a trip over to the Spring Valley Building.

How can I visit the AU Archives?

If you’re interested in doing research in the AU Archives, you should start by making an appointment by emailing or calling 202-885-3256. The Archives are open to researchers by appointment only, Monday through Friday, from 9am to 5pm.

The materials in the Archives and Special Collections do not circulate, and the stacks are closed to the public. When you make an appointment, you should be prepared to identify which materials in the Archives might be useful to you, and when you arrive, Archives staff will set you up in the Archives Reading Room and assist you in finding and accessing materials. 

Interested in learning more? Contact American University Archives and Special Collections.

4801 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 204
Washington, DC 20016

Happy researching!