Conducting Research

How to Get Started–Background Research and Forming a Research Question

What is a finding aid and why should I use it?

Research Strategies When Using Archival and Manuscript Resources. Or, what to think about when you read a primary source.

How to make the most of your research time.

How to find sources for your research in Center for Adventist Research.

May I see actual documents online?


How to get started – Background Research and Forming a Research Question:

It helps to be prepared before you start your research using archival and manuscript collection resources. Doing research in them can be quite different than in conventional printed or published sources.  These resources are typically unpublished manuscript material collected or produced by an individual or an organization.  They may be handwritten or typed, and if they are handwritten you should allow additional time to become familiar with understanding the handwriting.

  • Do some background research on your topic utilizing secondary or published resources.  Some unpublished collections can be quite large so some background research prior to using the unpublished records will help you navigate them faster and judge their relevance and meaning more accurately.
    • Use published sources and trusted web sites to collect background information on your topic.
    • Read citations, bibliographies, and footnotes looking for references to archival or manuscript collections.
    • Look for information on important people, dates, groups, and events related to your topic.
    • Familiarize yourself with key terms and concepts for the time period and topic you are researching.
    • Review online inventories for collections (sometimes called finding aids or registers) to find sources that fit your topic.
    • Some inventories (finding aids or registers) have histories and biographies that will help you understand the records you are using.  Review these before you use the records.
  • It helps to come to the archives with a topic or research question in mind. The nature of these records makes it easy for you to get far afield if you are not clearly focused in your review of the materials.


What Is a Finding Aid and Why Should I Use It?

A finding aid is a guide (or inventory) for a collection of archival records, personal papers, or manuscripts. It is a tool to help researchers determine if the records in a collection relate to their research, find where sources are located, and understand and interpret the materials they are using.  A finding aid may be a brief summary or a detailed description and inventory. It contains information on:

  • The amount and types of material available,
  • Dates of the records,
  • Selected topics covered by the records,
  • Who created the materials,
  • How the materials are organized,
  • The history or biography of the creator of the records
  • Inventory of box or folder content in a collection.

Research Strategies When Using Archival and Manuscript Resources. Or, what to think about when you read a primary source.

  • Consider where you should start your research based on the collection guide (finding aid), library catalog, your list of resources, and staff recommendations. These will help you decide which boxes or items to use first. Skimming the materials first and then going back for an in-depth review can be a useful research strategy.
  • With your topic or research question in mind, be open-minded and let the sources “speak” to you. If you try to find evidence to prove a specific point, you may draw conclusions that are not supported by the sources, waste your time looking for something very specific that is not in the collection, or miss more important or interesting information.
  • Expect to have to piece together evidence from various sources and not find a single document that tells “the whole story.”
  • Look for information on key people, dates, groups, organizations, and events related to your topic.
  • Look for prominent or recurring issues, subjects and ideas. See if patterns emerge.
  • Ask yourself what is missing. Write down questions or missing information you want to research.
  • Pay attention to the tone of the materials. Do the sources have a perspective or reveal their creator’s attitude regarding your topic? Are they objective, biased or even fictional or exaggerated?
  • Take careful notes, including the bibliographic information you will need when doing footnotes and bibliographies later.

How to make the most of your research time.

  • Plan ahead and leave enough time to complete your research before your project is due.
  • Research in archives and manuscript collections usually takes more time than online or research in published sources. The amount of time needed will vary depending on the scope of your project.  Remember that handwritten text will take a lot longer to read than if it were typed.  Archival documents, even if typed, will generally take longer to review than will published materials.
  • You may need to look through a large amount of material to find information or piece together evidence from different sources.
  • The materials are not always arranged in an order that is easy to use. It might take time to find the information you need.  This material has not previously been arranged and synthesized in the same way you will find in a book or journal article.
  • Some documents are handwritten, fragile, faded, or written in another language. It may take time to read this type of material.
  • Materials in the research facility may only be used in the reading room during hours the facility is open to the public. Start early. Don’t count on being able to do all your research the night before your project is due.
  • Make an appointment before visiting the facility. Most materials can be retrieved from storage on short notice.  But some may take longer.  If we know specifically what you wish to review we can have it handy for you.

How to find sources for your research in Center for Adventist Research.

  • Search CAR collection guides (Finding Aids) online
    • Searching Tip: You may have to try more than one search to find what you need. If you do not get any results, try other terms, use more general or more specific terms, or try terms that were used in the era you are researching. For example: searching for the modern term “wellness” results in only 8 matches, but searching for the older term “hygiene” results in 457 matches. Staff may be able to suggest search terms for your topic.
  • Search the Andrews University James White Library catalog.
  • Search CARdigital for digital images and records from the Center for Adventist Research.
  • Look at Center for Adventist Research Web Sites for lists of collections at the Center, links to digital content, online exhibits, and other resources.


May I see actual documents online?
In some cases the answer is “yes”, but most archives and manuscript collections in the Center for Adventist Research are not online. Selected collections are online, and new items are added regularly, but the majority are not available online. Online documents are available in the following locations:

Please be aware that the James White Library catalog will return most of the same materials as you will find using finding aids via the Center’s web site.  There are often several ways to access the same information or digitized data.