How to Do Historical Research: 10 Steps

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How to Do Historical Research: 10 Steps
How to Do Historical Research: 10 Steps

They ask you to do a historical research work and the fence is closed, because you do not know where to start. The professor or professor tells you that the tools you can use range from newspapers, books and interviews, to consulting old and recent documents. One of the sources of documentation that is at your fingertips is the General Archive of your country. Its name, even if you hear it for the first time, refers to a place where documents, maps, photographs, films and audio recordings are deposited, which are used to study periods, events, personalities and movements.

All this material helps to illustrate the development of the country's culture, society and even politics. As the General Archive has around thousands of cubic meters (cubic feet) of documents in its warehouses, you will surely find a documentary source that can help you with the research assigned to you. However, you must know the types of documents that are there. These came and come from government agencies, public corporations, municipalities, individual collections, and private companies. Those documents can be as old as eg. from 1732, like the Acts of the Cabildo de San Juan, or until 1980, like the plans for the expansion of several highways.

The General Archive is the official depository of all documents that the Government of the country transfers to it. Read on to find a guide to follow when conducting your historical research of any kind.


Method 1 of 2: Prepare to Investigate


Step 1. Begin by defining the topic to be investigated in the most precise way

It may have been assigned to you or it may be of your choice. Anyway, you must be clear about what it is about and what would be the most complete and precise way of approaching it.

Get Started With a Research Project Step 5
Get Started With a Research Project Step 5

Step 2. Establish the topic as a problem to be solved and be clear about its dimensions

As you go deeper into the subject, the real how and why will emerge that are shaping the story. There you will discover how extensive the topic is and how much you must investigate to get relevant information.

  • Establish a hypothesis or anticipated response that will guide you.
  • Make a list of questions that you will answer along the way of the investigation.
  • Prepare an inventory of the sources and resources you have to do your research.
July 10, 2012
July 10, 2012

Step 3. Establish the way in which you will conduct the research, strategy or methodology

It all depends on the way you work. You may find it more convenient to search for information on the Internet (which is not recommended), or you want to go to the National Library and even the General Archive. It will be easier if you establish the way of working from the beginning of the project, so you do not have to worry about this throughout your research.

  • Prepare working groups.
  • Establish research hours and days.
  • Divide responsibilities.
  • Divide the topics in order of importance or of greatest content.

Step 4. Separate a space, real or virtual

This will help you create a file with annotations of the findings you make as part of the investigation. Notes can be in notebooks, cards, or in computer files. The more organized you are, the better the outcome of the investigation will be.

Divergent reading
Divergent reading

Step 5. Learn to corroborate the data

You will use that technique throughout the investigation. You must rely on documents and files that are reliable and of proven veracity. Sometimes you will feel overwhelmed by excess information, try to focus on the relevant factors of the research and reliable sources to help you proceed.

Method 2 of 2: Get started with the investigation

Start a Used Bookstore Step 5
Start a Used Bookstore Step 5

Step 1. Be clear about where the information is

First you have to know where it is located, the physical address of the General Archive. An easy fact to find out with the use of the Web (this step is the same for any organization that you need to visit).

  • Secondly, you must be aware of the schedule in which the General Archive works, to make use especially of the Study and Reference Room.
  • Third, you should get the phones and emails that you can use to write if you want any questions.
Study the Chemistry of Energetic Molecules Step 1
Study the Chemistry of Energetic Molecules Step 1

Step 2. Find the best way to study

The documents you will find in the form of loose papers, brochures, books, photographs, photocopies, plans, magnetic tapes, discs or digitized documents. Everything is useful when investigating, find out what can be duplicated and how you can take possession of said information.

  • You can work and research with documents from various documentary collections. These are divided into several periods, such as: from 1732 to 1898, from 1899 to 1951 and the third period begins in 1952.
  • Among the documentary funds are: Governors Fund, documents of the Captaincy General, Public Works, Public Buildings from 1797 to 1898, Fund of Notarial Protocols, Fund of Municipal Documents, documents of the military administration and documents related to the establishment of the government, among others. It all depends on the country where you are investigating.
Librarian_at_the_card_files_at_a_senior_high_school_in_New_Ulm, _Minnesota_ (1)
Librarian_at_the_card_files_at_a_senior_high_school_in_New_Ulm, _Minnesota_ (1)

Step 3. Make your first consultation

Once you have determined what is the topic that you will investigate, you can approach to make your first query in the Archive. You must visit the Study and Reference Room. There, a reference archivist will guide you on the documents that can help you.

  • After an interview, you will fill out a form with your information and the purpose of the investigation. From there, you start to consult the guides for document funds.
  • Request the documents with the serial number, box or file, and the archivist will bring them to your table in the Reference Room. Some of the documents can be studied in their copies or facsimiles, since the originals cannot be touched so as not to damage them.
  • In some cases, you can obtain a copy of the documents, upon request. This process may take several days, but you will have the primary source for your research at home. So you can spend more time doing your work. In some cases, after consulting the archivist, you can use a digital camera to copy documents.
  • Another background that you can use in the General Archive is the Moving Images Archive. In this film archive, you will find images that serve as testimony to the changes that have occurred in the country's society from its origins to the present.

Step 4. Get other means of information

Your research may be inclined towards other topics, such as the different native animal species of a certain region, or life in the original peoples of a particular area.

  • For this you must resort to other research sites, try to locate the area that is dedicated to the study or preservation of animals, as well as the body in charge of the historical legacy of indigenous peoples.
  • You must turn to the specific organizations of each area to obtain the most concrete and real information that you will include in your research.

Step 5. Shape the investigation

Once you got all the material, you answered the questions that you asked yourself at the beginning of the investigation and you included different sources and resources, go expressing everything compiled in an understandable and orderly way. Keep the balance between quantity and quality of information, remember that in a historical investigation of any kind, the precision and argumentation of the information is essential.


As there are so many documents, remember to ask the archivist for them, using the serial number, box or file


  • Never start at the last minute as this takes a lot of time and you have to take into account a lot of details. Especially if it's your first time.
  • Constantly review your writings to make sure that the information you have is chronologically organized and correct.
  • Always try to be part of a study group so you can compare notes or data.

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