Geography Geographic Methods: Archival Research
Ashley Crowson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0178


The archive—broadly conceived—is a crucial container of historical evidence that can be used to gain insight into and an understanding of past geographies. Archival research, a methodology typically employed by human geographers, can provide us with important details of past geographical phenomena such as migrations, urbanization, and population redistribution; it can help us understand how past social, political, and natural geographies were “known,” represented, and contested; and it provides the opportunity to investigate what it might have meant to have been a certain person or peoples in specific spatio-historical contexts. Although less commonly employed in physical geography, archival research utilizing photographs, maps, and informal recordings or observations can also help in the recovery of data about our changing natural landscapes and climate. In the early 21st century, many scholars have called for a broadening and a diversification of the sorts of archives that historians and historical geographers consult and of what constitutes an archival source. Adherents of nonrepresentational theory, for instance, propose decentralizing textual sources in archival research, in favor of artifacts that might tell us something about practical, precognitive, and nontextual interactions with historical natural and built environments. Feminist, queer, and postcolonial scholars have urged researchers to place less emphasis on traditional institutional and governmental repositories, lest our understanding of certain periods be constructed exclusively from the elite and privileged vantage points of typically powerful institutions. Alongside calls for greater breadth and diversity in the sorts of archives consulted, critical theorists have argued that the contents of archival collections must be understood as “socially constructed”; they are constructed through the social, cultural, political, and economic circumstances of their creation, preservation, and curation. As such, no archive can represent a complete or “objective” record of a time, organization, place, or process. In addition to this myriad of factors that shapes the contents of an archive, postpositivist academic currents have also focused the attention of archival researchers on their own practice. A burgeoning area of scholarship is beginning to investigate how the previously unexamined practical, social, and cultural aspects of doing archival research and of being in an archive can affect the nature of the interpretations drawn from the material or even reshape the collection itself. Far, then, from simply consulting primary documents in order to uncover historical “facts,” successful archival research entails careful selection, evaluation, and analysis and poses numerous practical, conceptual, and intellectual challenges.

General Overviews and Guides

Formal archives are often difficult to navigate and typically have many strict rules about what materials you can access and how you should handle them. For the prospective archival researcher, there are several resources in various geography textbooks and journals providing overviews and instructive guides that will likely prove useful for anyone planning their maiden visit to an archive. Several of these resources provide instruction and advice, focusing on different aspects of the archival-research process. Ogborn 2010, for example, concentrates on the preliminary stages of planning archival research and locating appropriate sources, whereas Roche 2016 offers advice on taking notes and making records of the sources consulted. Some of these “how to”-type guides have, though, come under criticism; Lorimer 2009, in particular, characterizes such textbook chapters as, in large part, dutiful reproductions of unquestioned disciplinary orthodoxy. Instead, the author advocates methodological playfulness and innovation in archival research, suggesting that prescriptive guides outlining “how to do” archival research may play a role in impeding the emergence of more-imaginative approaches.

  • Baker, Alan R. H. “‘The Dead Don’t Answer Questionnaires’: Researching and Writing Historical Geography.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 21.2 (1997): 231–243.

    DOI: 10.1080/03098269708725427

    This paper tackles some of the inherent issues that have to be addressed when conducting historical-geography research in the archives, issues that are not present in research into contemporary geographies. It concludes that rethinking orthodox interpretations of past geographies should be an integral part of geographical study.

  • Black, Iain S. “Analysing Historical and Archival Sources.” In Key Methods in Geography. 2d ed. Edited by Nicholas Clifford, Shaun French, and Gill Valentine, 466–484. London: SAGE, 2010.

    Discusses the challenges distinct to analyzing three particular types of archival source: private diaries, literary sources, and visual materials. Contains instructive passages on understanding landscapes as social documents and on how novels and poems can provide important evidence for the reconstruction of past geographies.

  • Craggs, Ruth. “Historical and Archival Research.” In Key Methods in Geography. 3d ed. Edited by Nicholas Clifford, Meghan Cope, Thomas Gillespie, and Shaun French, 111–128. London: SAGE, 2016.

    Foregrounding the notion of the socially constructed and fragmentary archive, this contribution provides a guide to interpreting and analyzing archival sources while remaining cognizant of their partial nature. Includes example boxes highlighting how other researchers have attempted to meet such challenges.

  • Hannam, Kevin. “Coping with Archival and Textual Data.” In Doing Cultural Geography. Edited by Pamela Shurmer-Smith, 189–198. London: SAGE, 2002.

    Considers how to make sense of a large amount of textual material gathered from an archive. Details discourse and content analysis methodology and discusses the qualitative data analysis software that can be used to aide these processes.

  • Lorimer, Hayden. “Caught in the Nick of Time: Archives and Fieldwork.” In The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. Edited by Dydia DeLyser, Steve Herbert, Stuart Aitken, Mike Crang, and Linda McDowell, 248–273. London: SAGE, 2009.

    Lorimer critically reviews the development of “traditions of inquiry” in archival research, arguing that over the preceding two decades the methodologies employed by historical geographers has gone from “arithmetical” to “artful.” The review champions imaginative, playful, and innovative approaches to archival work.

  • Ogborn, Miles. “Knowledge Is Power: Using Archival Research to Interpret State Formation.” In Cultural Geography in Practice. Edited by Miles Ogborn, Alison Blunt, Pyrs Gruffudd, David Pinder, and Jon May, 9–20. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    A guide for researchers interested in the things that states do or have done, from collecting taxes to planning cities and fighting wars. Provides instruction for those intending to utilize formal state or governmental archives, with an emphasis on investigating the state’s discursive power.

  • Ogborn, Miles. “Finding Historical Sources.” In Key Methods in Geography. 2d ed. Edited by Nicholas Clifford, Shaun French, and Gill Valentine, 89–102. London: SAGE, 2010.

    Provides a useful guide of where and how to look for physical and digital archives and how to form a research question. Includes directories, with URLs, of major archival repositories.

  • Roche, Michael. “Historical Research and Archival Sources.” In Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. 4th ed. Edited by Iain Hay, 225–245. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Focusses primarily on offering practical advice to those planning to conduct archival research. Will likely be helpful to anyone who has not previously visited an archive as it includes lots of detail about what to expect and how to prepare.

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