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An introduction to archival research

Are you new to working with archival materials? Here you will find out more about how to search the Archive and what aids you can use.

Archival research, i.e. gathering sources and literature on a specific research topic, is a job for the researchers concerned and cannot be carried out by State Archive staff. The complete inventory of our holdings can be accessed via the online inventory. Here you can compile the sources that you believe may be relevant to your topic – provided no closure periods apply – and order the documents so that you can examine them in our reading room.

  • www.be.ch/inventar

What to do

Make your question as specific and precise as possible and find out if possible which authority was responsible. The archiving methods currently used are based on the principle of provenance according to the international ISAD(G) standard, meaning that records are classified according to their source: this makes the duties and functions of the authorities that produced them clear. The context in which the documents were produced is essential to interpreting the source reliably and to understanding the action taken by the authorities.

Reference works and tools

Conducting research in our holdings normally requires a certain level of prior knowledge. To gain a foothold in the task of archival research, we therefore recommend that you obtain some general knowledge of the topic concerned, first of all by reading reference works and the relevant literature, and that you only begin your search for archival materials after this.

If you come across a term in the course of your research that you do not understand (e.g. Urbar, Rodel), you can look it up in a dictionary or encyclopaedia (e.g. Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz).

For further support, we can offer you a list of abbreviations as a download. This explains the abbreviations that are commonly used in the sources. 

Searching the archive plan and finding aids

When conducting your research, do not simply use the full-text search, but also search the archive plan in accordance with the archival tectonics. This will give you an overview, allow you to gauge the number of available documents better and to identify the content in which the documents originated. If you localise a unit of description in the archive plan and navigate through the structure of the relevant archive holding, you often find various sources that may be of relevance to your topic of research.

Business process records (Geschäftskontrolle/Geschäftsverzeichnisse, only available on paper), which list cases chronologically or according to topic, can often be used as finding aids for records and documents. With the aid of the case number obtained, you can access the actual record. You can order the business process record for the period you are interested in via the online inventory and continue your research in the reading room.

Visiting the reading room

Although a lot of information is available online, it is important to note that most of the holdings in the State Archive and its specialist library are only available in hard copy. This means that if you want to conduct serious research, you will almost always have to visit the reading room.

German cursive script (Kurrentschrift)

Most documents from before 1900 are handwritten in German cursive script (deutsche Kurrentschrift, Spitzschrift). If you are relying on these sources for your research, it is essential that you are able to read this script.

The University of Zurich’s «Ad fontes» programme offers an introduction to handling historical sources and to reading old manuscripts.

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