How to Work with Archival Materials

Learn how to analyze archival materials to learn important histories.

"Working with Archival Materials" Downloadable Infographic

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Archival items, like photos and documents, let you discover history firsthand.

Following a general research format can help you find amazing histories. These guidelines can be applied to individual items or entire collections:


  • What does the item look like?
  • What do the physical characteristics tell you about the history?
  • Are there notes or markings on your item?

Author and Audience

  • Who created this item?
  • Who is the audience for this item?
  • Who or what is the author talking about in this item?

Time Period

  • Consider when your item was created.
  • What was going on socially, politically, etc.?
  • Does this item reveal something new to you about the time?


  • What does the item say or, if it is a photo, show?
  • What perspectives does this item support or argue against?
  • Why do you think this item was created?

Find Similar Items

  • What are the items that are in the same folder, box, or collection?
  • How are they related to your item?
  • How are they different?

Surprises and Questions

  • What about your item surprised you?
  • Why should others know about this item?
  • What questions do you still have?