Research is iterative. As you conduct your research you may find that some sources will help answer your research question and others will inspire more questions.
Manuscripts and archives are just one piece of the research puzzle, one kind of "document" to consider when gathering evidence. As you consider your research question, ask yourself:
- What types of sources might exist?
Your research question will help you focus your search. For example, studying immigrant populations in 21st century Boston will lead you to investigate an entirely different universe of sources than will research on child labor in 19th century textile mills in New England.
- What kind of sources do you hope to find?
Different formats fill in the record in unique ways. Do you want to find personal papers (letters, diaries, documents) or organizational records (correspondence, minutes, publications)? Contemporary newspaper accounts? Radical periodicals? Oral histories? Photographs or moving images? Statistics? Maps? Government documents? Scholarly books and articles? Objects? Printed ephemera? Works of art?
- Where might the sources have been produced and by whom?
Review the holdings of repositories in the geographical area central to your topic. Chances are, a local library, historical society, research library, municipal archive, or university library in the region will hold archival collections and other materials on the subject. Also consider schools and private businesses.
- Could relevant materials be in private collections?
Catalogs, databases, and repository websites can only help you find materials held in formal institutions. Don't forget that not all sources -- be they manuscripts, printed items, photographs, etc. -- are in libraries. The more you know about your topic, the easier it will be to discover privately held materials.
- Be creative! Primary sources are everywhere.
When searching for sources, think about how your topic fits in with the world at large. Considering an era in terms of the political climate, economic picture, popular culture, world events, art, music, literature, science, fashion, media, and the natural environment may spark ideas that lead you to investigate research angles that may not have occurred to you otherwise.