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Research Guides

Archival Research

Conducting Remote Research

Searches of ArchiveGrid, WorldCat, and other databases turn up archival collections in repositories around the world.  That can mean a library across town if you're lucky, or a library thousands of miles away.  

In an ideal situation you would be able to visit a library in person to use collections yourself.  When that is not possible, however, you can still do some research remotely. 

Tips for Productive Remote Research

Remote Research:  When you can't visit a library in person, you may still be able to conduct a substantial amount of research from afar.  For instance, there may be published editions of primary sources available in print, on microfilm, or online (on the open web or in subscription databases).  And those print and microfilm editions may be available to borrow via interlibrary loan.  Or you might be able to request digital or paper copies of archival or other special collections materials from the repository.  And if none of those options is available, you may be able to hire a researcher to search through a library's collections for you. Following are a few tips and suggestions to help you conduct archival research from afar. 

Preliminary Website Search:  Once you have discovered that a library holds materials relevant to your topic, take a close look at its website. 

  • Read about the library's collections as a whole
  • Consult research guides on your topic, if available
  • Browse the list of archival collections if there is one
  • Search across the library's finding aids or archival collections if the option is available
  • Read finding aids closely to get the full details on collections that interest you and to learn about any use restrictions that may be in place
  • Search and browse the library's catalog to find additional sources
  • Look for digital editions of the library's holdings
  • As you search, compile a list of materials you would like to consult at the library, dividing it by format (archival collections, microfilm, books, serials, etc.) and be sure to note collection names and numbers

Remote Reference:  Once you have a good understanding of the materials available and know what you would like to use, contact the library.  Check to see if there is an online reference form to fill out or if there is an email address to which you can send a reference question.  If not, call the library.  The staff may ask you to follow up with an email.  Be sure to send your question to only one staff member, not to multiple email address on the library's website.  Be specific when you ask your question.  Include collection names and numbers and indicate the box and folder numbers containing the materials of interest to you.  Let the library know what what your research focus is, what resources you have already consulted, and ask if they can recommend additional sources.  Finally, bear in mind that many libraries are short staffed.  Whether you send a reference question by email or regular mail, know that it can take some time to receive a reply.

Digitized Primary Sources:  Many libraries have digitized portions of their holdings making it possible for researchers to find copies of manuscripts and archival materials on their websites and in online portals.  Look for digital editions of a library collections as you browse  websites and search catalogs.  See the Online Archival Research page of this guide for more information. 

Reproduction Policies:  It may be possible to obtain a limited number of digital or printed copies from a library's special collections.  Be specific when you inquire.  Ask about obtaining copies from particular folders in particular collections and provide the full collection names, collection numbers, and links to the finding aids or catalog records showing where you learned about the materials.  Most libraries post their reproduction policies online.  These stipulate whether copies may be made, the number of items that may be copied, the cost of copies, the length of time it takes to obtain copies, and any permissions or other restrictions that may exist on copying from particular collections. There is usually a per-page fee in addition to postage charges.  Researchers are usually required to sign a document stating that the copies being requested will be used for reference purposes only, not for publication.  If you need copies from a collection for publication, you will likely have to make a separate request.  Images for publication come with their own fees, time schedules, and requirements.  

Interlibrary Loan:  Special collections rarely, if ever, allow their manuscripts or other archival materials to circulate, but many do allow their published primary sources, including books, serials, and microfilmed archival collections, to be sent out on interlibrary loan.  Multiple copies of these published primary sources usually exist and can be discovered on a library's website or with a local library catalog or WorldCat Discovery search.  See the Published Primary Sources section this guide for more information.  When you find a published source you would like to borrow via ILL, log into the Graduate Center's ILL system to submit your request there.  Microfilmed collections are usually accompanied by published guides containing scholarship that helps put the archival materials into context.

Researchers for Hire:  When you can't identify a small number of specific items that you would like to have copied, or when neither copying nor ILL is possible, or when there is simply too much material to go through remotely, consider hiring a local researcher to visit the library for you.  Check the library's website for a list of local researchers for hire.  Or consult the National Archives' list of Independent Researchers for Hire for ideas.