Historical research: an investigative treasure hunt

Whether you are gathering background information about objects in your collection or working towards a display, guided tour or educational program, sound research is essential. Developing good research skills and practices will ensure you find the most accurate and most interesting information, and take advantage of the widest possible range of sources. It will make research more enjoyable and rewarding and will result in a better end product.

Where to start?

Begin by defining your focus. In other words, if you think about what you want to know you will be able to work out the kinds of sources you might want to look at. Sometimes you will start with a broad theme and narrow down to a particular focus. At other times you might begin with a particular museum object or a specific idea and work your way outwards in different directions. You might be investigating change over time or focusing on a particular era such as the Depression, the Second World War or the ‘swinging sixties’. Research into a particular time period is often necessary when you are seeking information to place an object in its historical context.

A matter of perspective

What you are looking for will influence the way you conduct your research. You will often have a strong understanding of the local impact of some events and issues. Try also to look at local stories from broader national and international perspectives. For example if you are conducting research for a display about children and growing up in your area there is a range of possible angles you could consider:

  • Look locally: you will already know about some of the schools, kindergartens, playgroups, playgrounds in your area. You might have photographs or know about some paper records such as school registers, school magazines. These would make a local good starting point.
  • Listen: you have probably heard stories about children’s pastimes told by older members of your community. Think about doing some oral history interviews to preserve and share those stories.
  • Look nationally and internationally: to place your community in context, read some general books about childhood or education in Australia or other countries. In this way you see a larger picture of societal change within which the developments in your community took place.
  • Hop in a time machine: are you focusing on childhood in a particular era such as the Second World War? Look at general social histories about the Home Front to get insights into the kinds of issues that might have affected children. 
  • Learn your local history: local newspapers from any era will reveal events and issues in your town or district that impacted upon children.
  • Consider local concerns: council records or archives of community groups might tell other stories.
  • Seek complexity and diversity: remember to look for documents that might give you different perspectives on the same subject, such as the point of view of a child from an Italian background whose family might have been interned during the Second World War, as compared with the perspective of children from long established local Australian families.
  • What’s missing: look for evidence which will allow you to tell stories that have not yet been heard, the different kinds of lives led by children that have not been acknowledged – Aboriginal children, children with disabilities, children in care in institutions and foster homes.
  • Make connections: enlarge your research into objects. You might have some war era toys or other related objects like ration cards or signage displaying school evacuation or air raid procedures. You might be able to put such things on display and link them with other records such as photographs or stories from oral history. 

Each research path you take will lead you to other possible records you can investigate.

Types and locations of sources

Historians distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

Secondary sources such as published books and periodicals held in libraries are often the starting point for research. They can provide you with both broad background and specific detailed information. While you can borrow books from local libraries, in reference libraries such as the State Library of South Australia, or the History Trust’s own research library you need to look at the books on site. References such as footnotes and bibliographies in good history books can point you in the direction of other useful sources.

Primary sources are unpublished documents and all kinds of archival records including maps and photographs. Archival records are documents such as letters, diaries and minute books which have been written or gathered together by people during the course of their personal, family, business and working lives. They are preserved in archives for the benefit of future generations because they are regarded as having continuing historical value. 

In South Australia there are numerous archives of different sizes and types which are open to the public including:

    • State Records of South Australia for state government records (www.archives.sa.gov.au)
    • The Archival collection at the State Library of South Australia, often referred to as the Mortlock Library, for public and private records (www.slsa.sa.gov.au)
    • National Archives of Australia for Commonwealth records (www.naa.gov.au)
    • Church archives, such as the Lutheran Archives, Anglican Archives, Adelaide Catholic Archdiocesan Archives
    • Council Archives for local government records
    • Historical collections in local and regional libraries
    • Collections held and managed by historical societies and museums
    • Community, family and private collections.

You cannot browse the stacks in an archive and sometimes finding aids such as lists of documents are absent or incomplete, so you might need a lot of search time. You cannot borrow material from archival collections and there are rules to be followed when reading documents to guarantee their preservation. Take the time to delve into archives as it is often the actual documents of the time you are researching which provide the gems in the treasure hunt. 

Newspapers and periodicals are valuable contemporary records. Many newspapers are available at the State Library of South Australia on microfilm. Newspapers — international, national and local — provide details of major events as well as social commentary and are a good place to find information about individuals and community concerns. There is an index to The Advertiser and its precursors, The Register and The Observer, called the Manning Index which covers the years 1837 to 1937. (www.slsa.sa.gov.au/manning) Some examples of valuable local papers are

  • Transcontinental (NW of SA)
  • The Islander (Kangaroo Island)
  • The Border Watch (Mt Gambier)
  • Bunyip (Gawler)
  • Murray Pioneer (Renmark)
  • Pinnaroo & Border Times (Pinnaroo)

Photographs and other illustrative materials such as drawings, maps and plans are available in many archives. The State Library of South Australia, like other major repositories, has digitised many photographs allowing images to be viewed on-line. Remember the History Trust has its own Glass Negative Collection comprising South Australian photographs dating from 1890 to 1960.

Oral History can add human depth to any story. South Australia is lucky to have the JD Somerville Oral History Collection, established in 1987, as the central repository for oral history recordings. The collection houses a wealth of great stories and voices. It is valuable to record interviews yourself to preserve local stories and the memories of elderly residents. Contact the SA branch of the Oral History Association of Australia to find out about their next Oral History Workshop. In this day session, you will learn how to do oral history and train on high quality recording equipment which you can borrow, at no cost, from the Library for your project. (www.ohaa-sa.com.au)

Thorough research: selection and reliability of sources

Whatever subject you are researching you will not be able to use every source you find. You might not have the time to look at every single document. Some records that you think should exist, you will never find. One of the most valuable skills that researchers, such as historians, need to learn is how to be selective.

  • Accuracy is essential. It is therefore important to use and refer to the most reliable sources. A good rule of thumb is that the closer the source is to the event or issue you are investigating, the more reliable it is going to be. For example, the stories of an eyewitness, someone who was actually there, are more likely to be accurate than hearsay.
  • Locate and use a primary source document or record a first hand oral history account. Avoid relying on articles in tabloid newspaper and comments in unreferenced memoirs. If you are trying to find out whether something you have heard about really happened, or you want to establish a date for an object or event, primary sources are more likely to give you an accurate answer.
  • Acknowledge doubt. If you can’t find a definite answer or the information you find seems questionable, acknowledge that this is the case and that further research might be necessary.
  • Different opinions: If there is an area of doubt or an issue upon which there are different opinions or perspectives, or some controversy, it is important to investigate each point of view, rather than just trust widely held beliefs, common stories or myths. It is valuable to examine varied sources to gather different sides of the story and find potential answers to your historical questions. Always try to find intriguing stories to illustrate your points rather than just listing bland ‘facts’.
  • Surfing the web: Web resources should be subject to the same critical eye as other sources. A lot of information on the web can be inaccurate, subjective and incomplete. Check for footnotes and other references in the information provided. Check the credentials of the writers. Don’t believe everything you read.

Acknowledging Sources: References and quotes

When you make notes, copy or quote from a document or other source, you must accurately reference the source, in other words, record where the information you are using came from. For a book, write down the author, the name of the book, the publisher, place and year of publication, and the page number. For archival sources, there are specific protocols for correct referencing and acknowledgement. They might include the name of the archives, accession numbers, file details and dates. For example see information on ‘Citing archival records’ on the State Records website. For electronic resources such as websites and documents found on websites you also need to follow an author-name/address-date style. The author is the organisation or person responsible for the website, the address is the details of the www.site, while the date is both the date of the site’s creation or last update, and the date you viewed the site. This viewing date is important because websites, unlike printed books, are constantly being changed and updated.

Accurate references provide a trail for yourself and future researchers who might want to return to the original source for more information. While you will use shortened references on display panels or object labels, make sure to keep full references in your research files and collection catalogues. Photographs also have accession numbers and dates and where possible you should include these references in any captions in your displays. If you are going to be publishing photographs or using them in a public display, you will need to apply for copyright and in many cases you will have to seek permission to publish.

If you are quoting directly — in other words using words from a book or a document exactly as they appear — it is even more important to acknowledge this through correct referencing. The Australian Style Manual is a valuable guide to correct referencing.

Keeping good research files

Just as you might create files to store information about objects in your collection, you can easily develop well-organised research files. These are valuable for collecting information about subjects and themes related to objects, collections and your region and its history. They might contain hand-written notes, photocopies (labelled with where they came from), print outs from websites (again make sure web address, and date of viewing are listed), lists of further possible references, related correspondence, newspaper clippings (labelled with name of paper and date). If the files begin to grow, it might be good to include an index at the front. Usually files are read from back to the front, with the oldest folios filed first and later ones added on top. You should write a clear name or subject area on the file to identify what kind of information is held within it. If you also keep documents electronically or make notes in Word documents, giving your computer file the same name as your paper file can be useful for identifying all the information you have about a particular subject when you need to refer to it. 

Analysing the past

As you do your research you will begin to see connections between things you have read and learned. It is like finding and interlocking the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. However it is a puzzle that can be put together in many different ways. Think about all the sides to an issue, look for other ways of viewing what you have learned and see what you have gathered as a reflection not only of the past but of the present. Try not to generalise about the ‘olden days’ or the ‘good old days’, avoid tedious lists of names and dates. Discover the stories, ask the questions, seek new, untrodden paths to follow on your treasure hunt.

Refer to the Help Sheets: Display Design and Development, and Display interpretation and writing for further advice  


Just noting this sheet needs some updating since I put it together in 2010.  Under the newspaper section, information about Trove needs to be added with a link. Also I noted that under photographs History SA is referred to as the History Trust.  thanks for updating,Karen

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