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Popular Music Research: Getting Started

Getting Started with Popular Music Research

Keep Calm and Ask an Archivist  

Don't be intimidated about conducting archival research, especially if it is your first time. The staff of the Library & Archives is here to help!

Below are tips, strategies, and resources to help direct your research, whether it's for a school project, graduate thesis, exhibition, documentary, or other published work.

Can't find the answer to your question below? Contact us.

Search for Archival Materials

Search through the Rock Hall's archival collections here, including photographs, manuscripts, business records, posters, handbills, recordings, and much more from performers, bands, record label executives, recording studios, and the fans themselves!

Search for Library Materials

Search here for books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs in the Rock Hall collections. This will take you to the WorldCat online catalog and allow you to locate resources both in our library and libraries near you.

Visitor Orientation

View our Visitor Orientation for in-depth information on research at the Rock Hall's Library and Archives.

Archives & Archivists

An archives is a collection of primary materials, or records of enduring value. It can also be the place (a building or a department) where materials are stored. An archives, or archival repository, often has multiple collections that come from or have to do with a specific kind of material, sphere of activity, subject matter, or a particular institution.

Archivists are the individuals responsible for determining historical value, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to primary materials according to the principles of provenance and original order to protect the materials' authenticity and context. For more information on archival terms, see the Society of American Archivists' glossary.

Making the Most of your Visit

  • Plan Ahead. Contact the archives to determine the best schedule for your visit, discuss your research needs, and to request materials in advance.
  • Prioritize. What are the materials that would be most helpful? Ask to see those first.
  • Balance your workflow with the policies of the archives. After familiarizing yourself with the policies, you can better adapt your workflow to those criteria when conducting your research. For instance, audiovisual materials on defunct formats may not be available for immediate access. Institutions may not allow you to take digital photographs of materials. You may only have access to a certain amount of material at any one time. All of these things can potentially eat into your research time. Be aware of these policies.
  • Ask for help. That's what we're here for, and there's no such thing as a stupid question when dealing with one-of-a-kind, potentially valuable historical materials! Contact us here.
  • Take good notes and make thorough citations. You cannot "check out" materials from archives; they are unique materials that may exist nowhere else in the world. If you ask for a lot of copies, research becomes costly and time is wasted. If you need to go back and reference something again, this information may be impossible to find without a thorough citation.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an event or time period and offer an inside view.

Types of primary sources include:


... and much more!

Primary sources are generally found in the archives; however, any of these materials can be published and found in library collections. Primary materials will enable you to build upon prior research and provide your own interpretation of events. Even if nothing has been written directly on your topic, background research will help you to understand the context in which events occurred or the time and place in which a person or a corporation's activities were set.

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have images, quotes, or graphics from primary sources in them. Types of secondary sources include:

Finding Collection Materials

  Library materials, which include books, periodicals (magazines, newspapers, journals), commercial audio and video (CDs, LPs, DVDs, Blu-rays), dissertations, and sheet music can be found by searching a repository's online catalog. In our case, library materials can be located by searching Most research institutions also subscribe to databases, like Lexis-Nexis and Academic Search, which include indexes to periodicals, abstracts of articles, and PDF images or full-text transcriptions of articles. The online catalogs of some research institutions allow users to simultaneously search not only their physical library materials but also their subscription databases. Oftentimes, research institutions will also have digital collections that may be discoverable through the catalog or a separate database.

Archival materials
are grouped into collections based on their provenance, or the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance dictates that records of different origins be kept separate to preserve their context. Unlike library materials, archival materials are generally not described at the item level but rather in groups in documents called finding aids. Finding aids can sometimes be located in the same online catalog that provides access to library materials, subscription database content, and/or digital collections, but are often searchable via a separate database. In our case, our finding aids are located in a separate catalog from our library materials here. This same catalog also provides access to digitized content from our archival collections.

A finding aid (sometimes called an inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) is a text document providing a description of the contents of a collection, just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. By using a finding aid, a researcher gets an understanding of a collection in its entirety, sees the relationships between its component parts, and locates the portions of a collection pertinent to research. Finding aids sometimes provide narrative portions describing the background of a collection (how and when it was formed, how the archives acquired it, etc.), and how the archival staff has arranged the materials in the collection. Here is an example of a finding aid from our collections.

Please note, when you search library and archives catalogs, you can often limit your search results through the facets on the left-hand side of the screen, by the format of material (book, audio, video, musical score, archival material, etc.), collection name, type of archival material (documents, graphic materials, moving images, digital, etc.), name or subject heading, and more. For those of you particularly interested in archival research, you can facet your search by Archival Collection in our catalog, which links you to the finding aid for the collection; or Archival Item, which links you to the individual materials in a collection (a series, folder, or item) that relate to your search.

Requesting Collection Materials

Most research institutions will post information regarding the use and access of their collections on their websites, which can vary widely from place to place. If you can travel to the repository where your resources are located, be sure to check with staff well in advance of your visit regarding their policies and procedures for access to the materials. The institution may have limited public hours, and/or you may need to make an appointment.

If you cannot travel to the repository where your resources are located, there may be other options. Materials may be available through interlibrary loan, which means you can borrow that institution's materials through your local library. Please note the Rock Hall's Library and Archives does not have an interlibrary loan program, but you can see if library materials may also be available for you to check out at another library near you. Archival materials may be available through scans or photocopies from the repository for a fee. Be sure to check with the staff regarding duplication. You may also be able to hire a local researcher to access the materials on your behalf. Finally, the staff of some institutions may answer simple questions by viewing the materials for you, contact them to find out!

For information on Rock Hall Library & Archives' hours, access, policies, and anything else you might need to know for your visit, please see our homepage.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame | Library & Archives
2809 Woodland Avenue | Cleveland, OH 44115 | 216.515.1956 |