Advanced Research Methods: Primary Sources
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Advanced Research Methods: Primary Sources

The article focuses on primary sources, exploring the range of material available to historians. It gives advice on how to use architectural plans, archival photographs, maps, street directories and architectural journals. It also provides advice on how to use these sources in conjunction with each other in order to build up a composite picture.

This series of articles considers research methods one can use at Master’s level and beyond. I want to talk about the realities of doing an extended research project and to give you some practical advice based on personal experience. I’m going to discuss some of the techniques I used in my PhD. My research was in architectural history, but I’ll explain some of the techniques of historical research which you might consider using in your work. I’ll also try to give you generic advice about research design and methodology.

Primary sources

I now want to talk about primary sources, which are documents or artefacts produced during the period under study or written by the people in question.  These are some of the things you could use:

•Original letters, diaries or manuscripts.

•Published forms of the above – e.g. collections of letters, edited diaries.

•Newspapers, periodicals and journals.

•Public records and official documents.

•Accounts of contemporary events.

•Autobiographies of historical players.

•Literature from the period you are studying – fiction, poetry, plays etc.

•Material culture from the period you are studying.

•Buildings and design objects.


Research usually involves working backwards: you start with secondary sources, then use them to find primary sources.  When you read a useful book on your subject go through the bibliography and the references.  Which sources has the author relied on?  That will help you to identify key primary sources; then you can go and find them yourself.

To do research you need to develop a research question – what you’re trying to find out.  Your research methodology includes the techniques you use to answer that question.  You need a discussion of your methodology in your dissertation.  This can include doing interviews with designers, sending out questionnaires, fieldwork and so on.  The more you can say you’re going to do, the better. 

My key sources were Victorian architectural journals like The Builder and the Building News.  They featured detailed reports on new buildings: who built them, how much they cost, the materials used.  Journals make it possible to analyse debates within the profession and to gauge how Newcastle architecture was viewed from a national perspective.  I went through them systematically, looking at hundreds of volumes, which took months.  As you read through the volume you can feel Britain’s towns and cities being shaped.

One of the buildings I was researching was the Union Club in Newcastle, designed by M.P. Manning in 1877.  A plan of the building was published in The Builder in 1887.  Plans are useful because they show you the internal division of space.  That can reveal how the building was used and how social hierarchies were embodied within it.  The fact that there were two billiard rooms and private dining rooms suggests that the Union Club was a very sober, masculine institution.  This was a private club frequented by Newcastle’s leading citizens – industrialists and the cultural elite.

I also found an alternative design by Alexander and Henman, which was published in the British Architect in 1875.  This is in the Gothic style.  This is very useful for a study of architectural taste because it reveals that different styles were being considered.  The Gothic design was rejected and the French Renaissance design was accepted.  What does that say about architectural taste in Newcastle?  It’s fascinating to see alternative designs because it reveals that our towns and cities could have been very different.

Journals were lavishly illustrated and the images are particularly valuable when the building in question has been demolished.  But they have to be viewed with caution.  They sometimes differ from the actual building.  This is Collingwood Buildings, designed by Oliver and Leeson, 1897-9.  This is an early design by Oliver and Leeson, published in The Builder in 1898.  You can see that the design evolved in execution.  So you have to compare the illustrations with architectural plans and wherever possible with the buildings themselves.

Journals also disseminated new technologies and materials.  For example, in the 1890s a material called faience became fashionable.  The Prudential Assurance Company offices in Newcastle had an interior lined with faience tiles.  This is an advert for Burmantoft’s faïence printed in the Building News in 1895.  Firms such as Burmantoft’s used journals to advertise their products and that encouraged the spread of influences.

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Comments (6)

impressive work and the information you provided are reall valuable and useful. Thanks Sir for sharing your experience and expertise.

This line of articles is really in depth and useful Michael!

Ranked #11 in Architecture

Another excellent write from your expertise, superb work!

I'm so pleased you're providing insight into what goes into genuine research and writing, Michael.

Ranked #1 in Architecture

Thanks, James. This series is based on a lecture I gave two weeks ago, so the focus is a bit narrow, but it might be useful to someone.

Michael, getting across even on a fundamental level that there is a proper method of attaining reliable information is a worthwhile endeavor.