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Conducting Archival Research

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A guide, featuring the Hoover Institution Library & Archives

This is an open invitation to an intellectual feast on the Stanford campus. The Hoover Institution Library & 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 Institution Library & 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 Library & 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 (e.g. 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 Institution Library & Archives?

The brief descriptions of key Hoover Institution Library & 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. Much more than what is described here exists 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 For Ideas Using A Few Selected Collections

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 Institution Library & 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 Institution Library & Archives website provides general background, policies and procedures surrounding how to reserve a seat in the reading room, and updates on new acquisitions, at

Be sure to read this short guide explaining how to use the search tool.

Find and Access Your Archives of Interest

Begin your preliminary search and write down whatever collections you think might be interesting to pursue. If questions come up, contact research services staff by emailing or calling 650-723-3563.

When you have successfully identified the collections relevant to your research, it is time to reserve a seat in the Library & Archives reading room, open Monday - Friday 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. The reading room page on the website contains detailed information on how to reserve a seat, request material through Aeon, and prepare for your visit:  Please feel free to ask for help with the staff once you have completed your search.

How to Search


Most of the Hoover Institution’s library and all archival materials are listed in Stanford’s online catalog SearchWorks, available for browsing. To narrow your search, try clicking on “Hoover Institution Archives” in the library box of the SearchWorks 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 70 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. We'll go through this one together.

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

Results in Searchworks for the Daniel Learner Collection

Online Archive of California

The Online Archive of California (OAC) provides access to descriptions of primary source collections held by the Hoover Institution Archives, as well as more than 200 archival repositories across the state of California. Collections are listed in alphabetical order and have their own collection guide (as known as a finding aid) that includes biographical information about the creator, the scope and contents of the collection, and inventories and register descriptions of the material.

On the OAC website, conduct your search within the Hoover Institution by going to “Find a collection at this institution” in the left sidebar, or browse by alphanumeric order by clicking the appropriate number or letter. Once you have found the name of the desired collection, clicking on it takes you to the collection’s page. There, you have the option to view the entire collection guide in PDF or HTML format (links located in the upper right hand corner of the page). You can also use the search function to search the collection guide. To request items, through Aeon, click on the field on the top of the page.

For example, take the Daniel Lerner collection which has 87 boxes, this Finding Aid can help you pinpoint what material at the box-level is relevant to your research.

The opening page will be as shown below.

The Daniel Learner Collection viewed in the OAC

Hoover Institution Digital Collections

Hoover Institution Library & Archives collections that have been digitized prior to 2021 can be found on our Digital Collections portal. Digitized items include posters, photographs, manuscripts, moving images, sound recordings, and other historical materials.

Searches should be in English, with a few exceptions:

  • many non-English proper names have not been translated into English;
  • the records of the Zhongguo guo min dang [Kuomintang] are described in traditional Chinese; and
  • the Ėduard Amvrosievich Shevardnadze radio interview transcripts are described in Cyrillic.

The keyword search covers title, creator/contributor, description, subject, country of origin, object number, and object name. It also searches the full text of most PDF files ("document full-text").

Use quotation marks (" ") to search for an exact phrase and an asterisk (*) to search for a truncated term. For example, “Cold War” and stat* (for state, states, statutes, statistics, stats, and more).

In the search results, the search term is usually highlighted in context, with one exception: if a search term is found in the document’s full text. When a PDF file is retrieved in a search result and no search term is highlighted, the term is somewhere within the PDF file. After opening the PDF file, you can search within it for the term using keyboard shortcuts Control+F for PCs or Command+F for Macs

Additional search help is available in the Advanced Search.

How Do You Use the Originals?

Once you have identified a promising collection, you will need to reserve a seat in the reading room and request material (in priority order) through the archives’ registration system, Aeon. Reservations must be made 7 calendar days in advance, as half of the Library & Archives material (over 90,000 items) are stored off-site. Once you have submitted your reservation and selected material through Aeon, you will receive an email confirmation from staff.

When you arrive at the reading room, the reference archivist will explain how to safely handle fragile documents. If you are using photographs, you will be given a clean pair of nitrile 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.

For more information on Hoover Library & Archives conditions of use, visit

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.


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 Institution Library & 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 Institution Library & Archives!