Conducting Archival Research

This is an open invitation to an intellectual feast on the Stanford campus. The Hoover Archives Reading Room offers open access to a vast array of original sources on world history from 1900 to the present. Unlike published sources in books and newspapers, most of these archival materials are one of a kind and are only available at the Hoover Archives.

The archives are a local campus treasure that you can use to your  advantage. For students on campus, access is especially easy. The Hoover Archives staff is on hand to help facilitate use and coordinate with students and faculty to ensure a successful research project.

Typically scholars come to the reading room to see the original documents. Some are handwritten diaries by actors on the historical stage. Other materials include typed correspondence from military and diplomatic leaders. Some collections encompass visual materials, such as posters, photographs or artifacts that serve as evidence of material culture at a turning point in history. With an estimated 64,000,000 items, only a fraction have been scanned or microfilmed.

What Are Archives? 

Archives in the strict, narrow sense are the documents generated by an official government or organization in the course of its duties. So diplomatic dispatches issued by an Embassy are considered archives and the baptismal records accumulated by a church.

In American usage, the term “archives” expands to an umbrella concept for all primary documentation, including personal papers (such as correspondence, diaries and manuscript writings). It is also used for noncommercial photographic evidence  noncommercial videos and home movies. Also included in the general concept of archives are ephemeral materials such as posters for an event , (i.e.

an election). The initial intent for these materials is that they will be discarded after the date of their original use passes.
These materials are generated with one specific purpose in mind (for example, sending orders to an army or enrolling a child in a religious congregation). Then later the documents are preserved and used for a secondary purpose: writing history. Archives are documents that are no longer needed for their original purpose, yet have significant informational and evidential value for the purpose of writing history.

How Do You Start Researching the Hoover Archives?

The brief descriptions of key Hoover Archives collections on this website have been selected with PWR research projects in mind. They will give you a good start on researching some of the wonderful primary sources available to you at Stanford. Many more boxes than what is described here exist in each collection. However, you should be able to get a good idea of possible research projects from these descriptions.

Browse Through This Web Page

Acquaint yourself with some possibilities for research. Identify a range of historical research topics, working with your instructor to determine suitable topics to research. For topics related to modern history or politics, it is likely that the Hoover Archives have resources for you. Some sample past student research papers covered a wide range of topics. The following themes are just a few of the ones students have researched:

  • German and American propaganda
  • Women in World War II
  • Psychological warfare
  • Visual propaganda
  • The German atom bomb program
  • AIDS posters in Africa
  • American dealings in the black market in Germany after World War II
  • Relief efforts by UNRRA
  • The life of Sydney Riley, Ace of Spies

Check the Web

The Hoover Archives website provides general background, exact procedures, updates on new acquisitions and holiday hours at The website also has a query box so you can reach staff members for customized service for your specific paper in your particular class.

Read the Section About Searching the Archives

Begin your preliminary search and print out whatever collections you think might be interesting to pursue.

When you feel you have gone as far as you can go on your own, it is time to visit the Archives. The website contains instructions for finding the Reading Room (open 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Monday through Friday and on Saturdays by appointment). It is located in the Hoover Memorial Building to the left of Hoover Tower, the back wing of the two parallel buildings. Bring your Stanford ID card on the first visit and complete a registration form at the reception desk. Be sure to put your backpack and books into a locker, then sign in at the front desk and get an orientation.

A trained archivist will provide an individualized consultation and orientation specifically for the topic that interests you. The help of these reference librarians is invaluable. You won’t want to miss out on the many additional resources they can give you. So feel free to ask for help once you have completed your search.

  • You can also call the staff; the Hoover Archives reference service is unusually “user friendly.” From 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, a knowledgeable staff member — not a recording — answers the information number (650-723-3563). He or she can direct you to the best person to help you with your project.
  • Page your boxes using the yellow slips of paper by the reference desk. You will have to page your materials ahead of time, so plan to do this!
  • When you come to get your materials, the reference librarian will show you where your boxes are. These boxes will stay in the reference room for as long as you are working on your project.

Searching the Archives with Socrates

All of the Hoover collections have entries in the Stanford’s online catalog Socrates, available for browsing. To narrow your search, try clicking on “Hoover Institution Archives” in the library box of the Socrates interface. Then enter search terms. If you typed in “World War II propaganda” and hit the key to search all categories, you would find a list of 40 collections in the Hoover Archives including the papers of Daniel Lerner, who collected World War II propaganda and analyzed it for the Office of War Information.

The collection name is your starting point. If you ask Socrates for details, you will find the following general, collection-level description:

Lerner Example Two


Now you are ready to page some of the boxes - just take a few at a time, because it can take a while to go through even one box. You can save time, however, if the collection has a valuable research tool called a register.

What is a Register?

For the large sets of papers, there is often a register or index to the contents of the boxes. The register is usually a folder level description, or a box level inventory. Registers in the form of paper copies are available in the reading room – look for the black file folders near the car card catalog. There are also online register which you can access from the computer: try the Online Archive of California (OAC), which has detailed lists of the contents of many Hoover collections including the Lerner papers.

You can get there by clicking on the link for the register in the Socrates description or type in Online Archive of California on Google and select Hoover Institution for your search from the link “Contributing Institutions.” Since the Daniel Lerner collection has 87 boxes, this online register can greatly simplify your job.

The opening page will be as shown below.

Lerner Example Three

You can see the contents of the collection and an inventory of the collection through using the Contents menu to the left.  All of the boxes in the collection are inventoried, so the online register is a great help!

How Do You Use the Originals?

Once you have identified a promising collection, checked registers for promising documents, it is time to page the actual materials. The boxes are brought up from the storage area and kept on hold for you. You can drop in to use the materials during public hours, 8:15 to 4:45 Monday through Friday. To work on Saturday you need a special appointment.  The reference archivist will explain how to safely handle fragile documents. If you are using photographs, you will be given a clean pair of white gloves to wear to protect the emulsion from fingerprints. After the first visit, the logic behind these procedures will all make sense and seem second nature.

When you look at the documents, you need to bring your own knowledge of the context to bear. Background reading in published sources is absolutely essential to understand just what you are looking at. Then you will need to ask a lot of questions while you go through the materials, such as:

  • Are the files complete or fragmentary?
  • Are they well organized or random in order?
  • When were they written and by whom?
  • Is the author knowledgeable or clueless? (All archives have some of both!)
  • Is the document authentic or the copy of another document? (You can tell this by examining the paper as well as the ink and by reading the document itself.)
  • Is it a forgery, and if so, what was the purpose of the forgery?
  • Is there an agenda in the writings?

With visual materials such as political posters or photographs, “reading” the pictures can take as long, or longer, than reading actual text. There are often ambiguities in archival documents. Working assumptions need frequent revising.

Important Reminders

  • You can take your laptops into the reference room, but not pens or papers. You will be provided with paper and pencils at the reference desk.
  • Always wear gloves when you are handling the photo exhibits.
  • Treat all materials very carefully, as they are very rare and some are fragile.
  • Only take one box at a time to your table, and be sure to keep all contents of boxes and folders in their proper places.
  • Bring your Stanford ID card or some money with you, so you can make copies with the copy machine in the reference room.
  • Don’t miss the poster slide collection, located near the light table in brown boxes arranged by country. You can browse through these slides or ask for help from Carol Leadenham, the archivist who can help you with slide searches on particular topics. Her office is located right next to the poster slide collection, and her email is
  • Expect to spend a lot of time while you are in the Archives – you will be finding many wonderful pieces of research that may have nothing to do with your project, but you will be tempted to browse, so budget your time so that you have a large enough period of time to go through a number of primary sources.
  • Keep careful notes about which collection and which folder you got your materials from – it can be very frustrating to try to find the same materials again if you have not written down the box and folder number!!

How do you get from the primary source to the research paper?

For your research, you will need to use a combination of primary sources, like those found at Hoover, and secondary sources, published scholarly works or articles on your topic. A comparison of primary sources with published secondary sources on the same topic will often reveal a fresh perspective on historical events, add richness of detail to known events, correct faulty evaluations, or refine the chronology of history, provide a new voice from an eye witness to history. Exploring archives leads to such discoveries that form the basis of research that adds to our knowledge. One document alone can be the basis of an analysis. One poster can be used to illustrate a point. More frequently, the series of files provides a sense of “real time” as events unfold. Secondary sources show how events lead to a result, and have an air of inevitability about them. Primary sources show imperfect people struggling with the blur of conflicting and confusing forces, the “fog of war.” The authors of letters do not yet know what the outcome will be; their motives are often mixed and unclear even to themselves

CITATIONS. Be sure to cite the sources you use, not only to avoid plagiarism but to lead other researchers to your sources accurately. The convention is to go from general to specific in your footnotes: Name of the archives, name of the collection, box number and folder title or number. For example: “Hoover Institution Archives, Daniel Lerner Collection, Box 52, Folder 1.” It will then be up to your readers to find the actual documents in question once you have given them the folder information.

When Your Research Paper is Complete

Archival research is steeped in traditions and etiquette. Researchers, as a courtesy, are expected to inform the archives of publications citing their materials. Many European archives have entire libraries of publications based on their sources. The Hoover Archives appreciates receiving copies of such work or at least citations to publications and titles of research papers submitted to Stanford classes. Your instructor may ask you for another copy of your final paper so that the Archives can have a record of the work student researchers have done.

But above all, have fun and enjoy the wonderful resources available at Hoover Archives!