Journal of Historical Political Economy > Vol 2 > Issue 3

The Library of Babel: How (and How Not) to Use Archival Sources in Political Science

Alexander Lee, Department of Political Science, University of Rochester, USA,
Suggested Citation
Alexander Lee (2022), "The Library of Babel: How (and How Not) to Use Archival Sources in Political Science", Journal of Historical Political Economy: Vol. 2: No. 3, pp 499-526.

Publication Date: 31 Oct 2022
© 2022 A. Lee
Political history,  Autocracy
ArchivesIndiaemergencysample selection


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In this article:
Common Problems in the Use of Archives 
Best Practices for Archival Social Science 
An Illustration: The Indian Emergency, 1975-1977 


The use of archival sources is understood to be an important research tool, but the problems involved have rarely been distinguished from the broader difficulties of interpreting qualitative sources. Attempts to use archival material for hypothesis testing, as opposed to description or theory development, are confounded by the large size and often opaque structure of archives; factors which lead to misinterpretations of evidence and a tendency to confirm the author's expectations. This paper discusses common features of archival materials, and shows how they can compound traditional research design problems. It then proposes a set of best practices for avoiding these problems, most notably the use of strong and explicit sampling procedures. These practices are illustrated using a brief discussion of material from the National Archives of India on the 1975 Emergency.