How might you conduct research in an archives?

By Mitchell Dorsten, archives student worker & Public History graduate student

Today, I would like to discuss how a researcher (such as yourself) might use archives.

Generally, there are many ways to go about the research process. Some people like to start by learning as much context as possible: they read books and articles and learn everything that fellow researchers have already discovered about the subject. Other people prefer to start in the archives, trying to understand their subject directly from the primary resources before they ever read what someone else has said about it.

Both of these methods have their benefits and flaws, but most often, research will involve going back and forth as both contextual and archival resources lead into one another. Let’s trying this out using an example: say you are trying to learn about Ohio newspaper cartoonist Milton Caniff.

Pretend that our first knowledge of this cartoonist came from the Milton Caniff Drawings (MS-188). It is not a big collection by any means; it is only a partial collection of drawings by Caniff of enshrinees in the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF), plus a single note written by Caniff. However, even a small collection can be valuable, as we will see. Now, based on this collection alone, what if we became curious: who was this man, and what was his connection to the NAHF? Where do we start?

Wilbur Wright’s certificate, an example of the bulk of MS-188

Wilbur Wright’s certificate, an example of the bulk of MS-188

A brief online search will uncover, among other resources, Caniff’s obituary in the New York Times. This reveals that he was born in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1907, went to Stivers High School in Dayton, and was famous for the popular comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon.” As an adult, he often returned to Dayton, and he made drawings for charitable causes.

Further searching will lead you to The Ohio State University Libraries’ Milton Caniff Collection, the largest collection of Caniff-related archival materials in the world, and an online exhibit they made about him. From the exhibit, we learn that he held a “lifelong passion for airplanes” that came from his childhood experience watching early aviators flying in Dayton. He was also very patriotic; he drew cartoons for the troops during World War II (he could not fight for health reasons) and his character Steve Canyon was in the U.S. Air Force.

(Have a look at Caniff’s “Dayton Kid” poem, created for the Christmas 1960 Steve Canyon, online at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.)

Given all of this information, Caniff’s connection to the NAHF begins to make sense. Caniff drew portraits of the hall of fame enshrinees out of a passion for aviation. Given that the NAHF is headquartered at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, a city he often returned to, it seems reasonable – even natural – that this partnership would happen.

This brings us to the note found in our very own Milton Caniff Drawings (MS-188):

Mr. Caniff’s note to Mrs. Hubler, MS-188

Mr. Caniff’s note to Mrs. Hubler, MS-188


The note reads: 

12 Oct. ’79

Mrs. Hubler:

How very much I would like to make the drawing, but I am just out of the hospital – and the medics say no extra effort for awhile.

I am most certain you will understand.

Milton Caniff
Palm Springs

Without the contextual research we did earlier, it would be hard to tell whether Caniff sincerely would have “very much” liked to do the drawing (without Mrs. Hubler’s original request, it is impossible to tell what he would be drawing) or if he was just rejecting her in a polite way. Examining the NAHF website gives us further evidence that he was being sincere: without fail, Caniff drew every enshrinee from NAHF’s 1962 founding through 1987, the year before he died. This includes the enshrinees of 1979 and 1980, when he should have been saying no to any “extra effort.” Additionally, the NAHF gives an annual award in Milton Caniff’s name, an honor that indicates Caniff’s large amount of service and dedication to the NAHF.

So, through our brief research, we know who Milton Caniff is, how he is connected to Dayton and the NAHF, and why he was so willing to make all of these drawings of famous aviators.

Of course, research usually goes much farther than this. Even so, I hope that this example has shown how contextual and archival research work together when you are studying history.

So next time you have some research to do, be sure to stop by the Special Collections & Archives; we are always eager to aid researchers like you!

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