Documentary research: what it is, characteristics and types

What is documentary research?

Documentary or bibliographic research is one that seeks to obtain, select, compile, organize, interpret and analyze information about an object of study from documentary sources, such as books, archival documents, heterography, audiovisual records, among others.

This type of research is widely used in the social sciences and is characteristic of the qualitative research model, where it constitutes an objective in itself. However, it is present in all types of research, since only from the documentary investigation are the antecedents of the problem or the state of the matter known.

Characteristics of documentary research

Among the most important features of documentary research, we can mention the following:

  • It is common to all types of research with theoretical or referential foundation, whether in natural sciences or social sciences;
  • It obtains data from the revision of documents of different tenor;
  • Organize the data collected in a consistent manner;
  • It allows rediscovering or reinterpreting different aspects of a subject;
  • It helps identify gaps, omissions or misrepresentations in the previous reference sources;
  • Suggests new perspectives and / or theories of analysis based on the information obtained;
  • It requires the ability to synthesize, deduct and analyze;
  • Provides solidity to the researcher’s conclusions.

Sources of documentary research

In a strategic sense, there are two types of essential sources: primary research sources and secondary research sources.

The primary research sources They are those that give first-hand information about the object of study. They are characterized by providing original and relevant information. For example, in the case of a biography, the character’s civil documents (birth certificate and other records) are considered primary sources.

The secondary research sources they are those that have obtained information from another source and have submitted it to a process of scrutiny, restructuring, analysis and criticism. Following the example of the biography in progress, the secondary sources would be other previous biographies or history books that expose at least a part of the character’s life under study.

Both primary and secondary research sources refer to the following types of documents as appropriate:

  • Printed documentation: It is made up of books; thesis; newspaper publication; archival documents (minutes, reports, correspondence, treaties, contracts, accounting records, etc.);
  • Graphic documents: paintings, photographs, maps, diagrams, infographics, etc.
  • Audiovisual documents: video records, audio recordings, movies, documentaries, among others.
  • Electronic documents: In addition to digitized documents, we can identify blogs, information on social networks, etc.

Elements of documentary research

Within all documentary research the following elements are identified:

  • Documentary unit, that is, the physical or virtual space in which the available sources are located
  • Documents or sources of information
  • Study sheets for organizing reading notes

Types of documentary research


Informative documentary research is one that aims to inform everything about a specific topic. This type of research describes the object of study in its details, and is responsible for ordering and systematizing the information available in a coherent body of ideas. It is usually distinguished by the way of systematizing information and by providing new approaches.


The exploratory documentary investigation may have the purpose of exploring the validity of certain hypotheses, understanding a complex problem through analysis and/or formulating possible solutions to the problem in question.

Basic structure of a documentary research work

The structure of a documentary research work will depend on the subject and its purpose. However, in general terms, a job with these characteristics has the following basic structure:

  • State of the matter;
  • Problem Statement;
  • General and specific objective;
  • Limits and scopes;
  • Theoretical / methodological framework;
  • Analysis of the issue;
  • Conclusions;
  • Sources consulted;
  • Annexes (if applicable).

Steps for documentary research

  1. Once the topic has been identified, define the type of sources needed for the research based on the following criteria:
    • Relevance
    • Thoroughness
    • Present
  2. Keep a record of the sources consulted based on any of the current reference standards (APA, Chicago, Harvard);
  3. Organization and analysis of information obtained from documentary sources.