How to Start Your Research Project

Knowing where and how to start your historical research project
When we do historical research, we do the same detective work that a policeman does when he or she investigates a crime. We want to find out who was present at that time and place so that we can find out what happened. And just as with live people, we usually find that not everyone agrees.

This type of research is all about talking to people from the past—and figuring out to whom you should talk in order to get a complete and accurate answer. Since most of us can’t normally speak with ghosts and conversations in graveyards tend to be pretty one-sided, we talk to people from the past through the records that they leave behind.

You’ll be a better detective if you understand the different types of records and the types of answers you are—and aren’t—likely to find in them.

My Archives: What kinds of records do you produce?

  1. Make a list of everything you have done and everywhere you have been for the last 48 hours. Have you gone to school, written a paper, shopped, written an e-mail to a friend, played a game?
  2. Now go back through that list and write down all the things you’ve done that have left a record. For example, when you went to school, you wrote a paper, filled out a form for the school nurse, and sent an e-mail to a friend. Maybe you took some photographs or video of your family.
  3. Now go through it again and mark all the things you did where someone else produced a record about you and what you did. An example might be the records that your school keeps of your grades, or the credit card record kept by the store where you shopped.
  4. Go through the list one more time and write down all the things you did that didn’t leave a record: phone calls, conversations on the street, thoughts.
    If someone looked at these records, what would they find out about you? How about the world in which you lived? What would they not find out?
  5. Think of a public event going on right now, like an election, a court case, or a public debate. What records are produced around these events? Who saves them? How can a future historian find out about the event from these records?

Not all of the information about us gets saved. Some things, like birth certificates and some types of financial records, are saved because laws and other rules say they must be. Other things, like family photographs, get saved because people care about them and the memories they preserve. Archivists and librarians help determine what in their collections should be saved. And some things get preserved accidentally by people who never throw anything away! Do you know anyone like that?

How are Archives Different from Libraries?
Many libraries contain an archives and some archives even may have a library. What’s the difference; don’t both of them house sources of information? Libraries generally collect printed items that may have many copies distributed around a region or the world. Most people recognize that libraries have the most common printed item – a book. But libraries also collect other printed items like maps, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and posters, and some libraries also collect printed ephemera (like matchbooks, greeting cards, programs, invitations, etc.). But these printed items (particularly books) are widely available at the time they are printed and are obtained by libraries around the world. Have you ever found the same book at more than one library? Why do you think some libraries have the same books on the shelves?

Archives, though they also preserve information, have a slightly different focus in that they deal with original or unique items, rather than widely printed ones. Thus, items like a handwritten diary of a soldier, love letters from a husband to his wife, a tax collector’s account book of taxpayers of a town, or a collection of parade photographs taken by a magazine photographer, all could be within an archives. Most archives have strict rules to ensure that the one-of-a-kind items in their care won’t be accidentally written on, thrown away, damaged or misplaced. For if something should happen to one of these unique-items, it is gone forever. In addition, archives generally do not have large stacks of materials out for researchers to use like your local public libraries do. Therefore, researchers have materials brought to them by an archivist on duty, who obtains them from a closed-off area for protection. It’s sort of like ordering a meal in a fine restaurant. Have you ever lost a unique item that you could never replace?

Questions…And where you might find answers at the NJHS or another library.
Library catalogs and Web search engines help us find many things by keyword or name. But for many questions, you will get a more complete answer if you can think of places where you might find what you’re seeking. Would you look in a music store for a ironing board? No! So don’t search in a medical library for information on the Revolutionary War! In other words, look for information from a library or archive that specializes in that topic. Here at The New Jersey Historical Society, our library focuses on anything tied to the history of New Jersey, so we are not the best place to search for current information, or for information on other states. What places would be a good place to search for current information? (Perhaps the Internet to start with and your local public library?)

For example, if your project was dealing with the demolition of a fire house in your town, you may want to look in the town hall for original town reports or building permits tied to the destruction of the building; the town or county historical society for original records of the fire company, showing where the company exists today and who decided to tear down the building; and The New Jersey Historical Society or the New Jersey State Archives for newspapers that documented the destruction of the building or histories of the town that may cover the destruction.

Of course, you can always ask an archivist or librarian for help if you need it, for they will know the best what resources are available where. Librarians are often the ones who know whether to refer you to the Friendship Fire Company Museum, the Woodbury Public Library, or the Gloucester County Historical Society, when the need arises. It is good to seek out their help.

What do you have at The New Jersey Historical Society Library?
Researching at The New Jersey Historical Society need not be complex. Check out our Library Collections Page or Archives Collections Page for materials that we have available. If you have questions about what we have or need some suggestions for further research (or you are just plain stuck!) try asking our librarians at (973) 596-8500, ext. 249 or at

The Historical Society’s museum collection is another way to find out about New Jersey’s past. For information about furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, clothing, household items, and other artifacts, look at the Museum Collections Page to find out more about these collections. To ask a question about research, reproduction, use, loan, and/or viewing of objects in the museum collections, please contact the Collections Manager at (973) 596-8500, ext. 230 or via e-mail.

After I have found these materials, how do I use them?
Examine our other online guide for research help:
How to Use Primary Sources

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