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Historical Methods Using Government Documents

Historian's guide to government documents: what they are, how they are organized, major historical sets to be familiar with; tips for searching

Methods and Tips

  1. Think in terms of agencies, not subjects. 
  2. Use search terms appropriate to the historical time.  This may be a different term from what we use today.
  3. Remember that spelling of names and place can vary across documents.  This is especially important when searching the full text of digitized documents
  4. Search broadly.  Most documents are not indexed under obvious titles or specific events.  You may have to look at a variety of documents under your time period, country of interest, or general event.
  5. Leave room for serendipity.  Start with a general topic and let the documents lead you to a specific question.