How To Do Research

Know What To Look For

What is a record, what is a collection, and how do archivists make them available to researchers? 

Records are information stored on paper, electronically, or in audiovisual formats that tell a story about the past. Records become evidence for researchers to understand the world during the time the record was created. Records range from notes and doodles scribbled in a meeting, to a letter sent by President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Tony Blair, to a photograph of the presidential pets, to emails sent between two White House staffers.

Unlike traditional libraries, archives collect records in separate manuscript, audiovisual, and electronic collections created by individuals and organizations. Archives professionals then process these separate collections and make them available to researchers.  An example of a collection from the George W. Bush Presidential Library is the White House Office of Records Management Files.

There are a number of different types of records within the Library’s collections. Any type of document used in the course of a business day at the White House is included within the collections. Specialized records unique to the White House include the Presidential Daily Diary, briefing papers, and presidential speeches.

Members of the public make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access records on a particular topic. Topics are subject based, and the request can be narrowed by date or by the White House staffer who collected the material. Archivists receive and process these requests. Since FOIAs are topical in nature, the records that are responsive to that request may be from several different collections, and are brought together because they are on the same topic.

What does it mean to process a collection or FOIA? 

Archives professionals work with collections in several steps to make documents available to researchers. These processes include arrangement, preservation, review, and description, most often in that order. 

Arrangement: Arrangement is the process of maintaining either the original order of the creator of the collection, or creating an order where there might not be one. The arrangement should assist researchers in finding what they need. Common arrangement schemes include alphabetical order, chronological order, or by subject. Processed FOIAs are also arranged similarly.


Preservation: Records may come to archives in a state of disrepair. Archives professionals remove staples and paper clips (which can rust), make preservation photocopies of quickly degrading papers like newsprint, and place documents in acid-free folders and boxes. This preservation is vital to keeping the records safe for generations of researchers to examine and use.

Review: Archivists determine what records can be released under the provisions of the law. They review documents under the terms of both the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The PRA governs the official records of the Presidents from President Reagan onward, while the FOIA provides access to government information in executive branch agency records, including those of the president.

Description: Archivists describe how a collection or FOIA is arranged in guides called finding aids. Finding aids enable researchers to find what they are looking for. Check out the Library’s finding aids.

What is a finding aid and how does it help researchers? 

Finding aids are documents that serve as guides to each collection and FOIA. Archivists write finding aids after they arrange, preserve, and review each body of records. Finding aids also detail the types and amounts of records (textual, electronic, and/or AV) and include a list of each folder contained in the paper record as well as list the Search Results Lists (SRLs) for electronic records. In addition, they contain an administrative or biographical history relevant to the collection. Finding aids also detail how the records are arranged in the collection or FOIA. Finding aids are indispensable to researchers in guiding them to what they are looking for.

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Brochure for the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum available to download.