What is documentary research?

By Ainne Thompson / On / In Research

It will be a documentary investigation all that research that has as main work material a compilation of written documents, audiovisual or of any kind, that serve as a sample or memory of the events that have taken place and allow to investigate in search of later conclusions.

Thus, a documentary research will always be devoted to the review of a file, composed of material of different nature: books, newspapers, recordings, magazines, films, photographs, etc. All this is known as documentary sources.

Investigations of this type are distinguished in their procedure and methodology from other models such as experimental research (which reproduces phenomena in controlled environments) or field investigations (which go to reality to collect the data they will study).


Documentary research can be defined as a strategy for understanding and analyzing theoretical or empirical realities through the review, comparison, comparison or understanding of different types of documentary sources referring to a specific topic, through a systematic and organized approach.

Documentary sources

All documentary research, as has been said, is based on documents to undertake the analysis. This type of sources (which we have already mentioned can be very diverse) are understood as durable materials that collect the information of their time and allow us to access it at any time.

Thus, a documentary investigation can consult old or recent books, recorded TV programs, newspapers of the last century or even photographs of an expedition in which we do not take part.

The human being has designed better and better methods to capture and reproduce the historical conditions of his experience. To all those information devices we will call “documents”.

Documentary units

This is the name given to physical spaces (libraries, newspaper libraries, video libraries, etc.) or virtual spaces (digital catalogs, databases, etc.) that contain the documents to be consulted during the investigation.

Textual quotations

The textual citation is a usual and important practice in all documentary research, and consists of extracting or reproducing a fragment of the original text consulted, in order to interpret it and compare it with others.

To do this, it must be transcribed without adulterating its original meaning and respecting certain bibliographic and methodological standards that provide the necessary information together with the specific interpretation of the researcher.


The documentary investigations undertake a methodology consisting of the following steps:

  • Font arching. Thick selection of the material that could be useful for the research and composition of the archive, based on the central theme of which it is concerned.
  • Revision. Discarding of material that is not very useful or that is not related to the specific objectives of the research.
  • Comparison. Comparison and organization of the material available to obtain the quotations and references to support the interpretations or theories of the researcher.
  • Interpretation. Analysis of the collated material and preparation of a proposal for critical reading, opinion, interpretation or deduction of the researcher.

Conclusions General closing around the theme, which collects the points demonstrated by the previous steps and its framework of possible causes and consequences or meanings.


All documentary research has a bibliography (better known as a reference section) where the reader should be provided with a list of the documentary sources consulted with their respective technical and methodological data, such as edition, page, year of publication, editorial data, authors consulted, etc.

It is about contributing everything that may be useful to a future researcher to investigate the work done or to nourish a subsequent investigation on the same subject or some related one.

Types of documentary research

There may be different forms of documentary research, according to the type of sources consulted:

  • Bibliographic research. The one that deals with reviewing published books and printed texts.
  • Hemerographic research. Its material is composed of newspapers, magazines and periodicals of any kind.
  • Audiovisual research Check sound, video or any non-written material, such as photographs.
  • File investigation. Take advantage of everything in a specific file batch, such as the documents of a specific company, or the correspondence of a specific author.


High school students

This type of research is based on techniques of location, extraction and data fixation, to build a conceptual and documentary map of all the information extracted.

It is assumed that whoever reads the research should be able to understand and reproduce the researcher’s specific research, in order to accompany it in the interpretation of the obtained and in the formulation of the conclusions.


Documentary research is vital in our civilization, given the enormous efforts we have made throughout history to leave testimony of our passage on Earth.

The review of historical and / or documentary sources is key to understanding our past, interpreting our present and planning our future, based on the mistakes made and the previous experiences.

The collective learning resulting from collective research also generates more written knowledge that in turn serves as a source for future researchers, who can copy, interpret or improve the method used and produce new documentary works in turn.