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Research Guides

Archival Research

Before Visiting an Archive

Visiting an archive is usually quite a different experience than visiting a circulating library.  Collections are one-of-a-kind, so procedures are in place to balance the needs of researchers who wish to use the materials with the needs of the repository to keep the materials in good condition for posterity.  You may have to register to use the collections, show identification, stow coats, bags, pens, and paper, and follow other procedures. 

Read about the Typical Usage Guidelines in Archival Repositories from the Society of American Archivists to get an idea of what you might expect when you visit a special collection.  And see the tips below to ensure that your visit goes as smoothly as possible:

  • Closely review the repository's website.  In addition to the basics such as the hours of operation and street address, repository websites often contain a wealth of information that will help you make the most of your visit.  You may learn about reading room protocols, advance registration requirements, reproduction policies, and whether laptops and personal cameras are permitted, among other details.
  • Explore secondary sources and published primary sources. A good understanding of your subject will help enormously as you look through archival folders and boxes. Without knowing what to look for, you may miss important documents or waste time trying to decipher unrelated materials.
  • Read finding aids in their entirety. Every section of a finding aid, from the administrative information to the container list, will inform you of essential details. The biographical and historical notes will be particularly useful for putting the materials in context, and the scope and content note will let you know whether or not the collection contains material relevant for you. But the entire finding aid should be essential reading.
  • Contact the staff by email or phone.  This step is essential. Always contact the library staff to let them know which collections you would like to use and when you plan to visit. The collections you need might be stored offsite and require advance notice for retrieval. In some repositories, appointments are required. Permission might be necessary before you can use certain materials. The reference staff at the library can also help you discover other materials that are related to your topic and provide answers to logistical questions that are not answered on the website.

Handling Materials

Closely follow the instructions you are given at the repository, which may include some or all of the following guidelines:

  • Do not eat or drink near special collections materials. 
  • Handle documents carefully. 
  • Turn pages gently.
  • Inform library staff when you encounter volumes with uncut pages.
  • Keep folders of documents flat on the table.
  • Do not hold documents up in the air to read them. 
  • Do not lean on volumes or manuscripts.
  • Do not disturb the order of the documents. 
  • Use pencils only when taking notes. Do not use not pens or highlighters. 
  • Wash your hands before handling documents. 
  • Be sure to alert archives staff if you encounter damaged or extremely fragile material that may need special attention before it can be safely handled. 
  • Do not take photographs without asking permission.
  • Follow all the instructions of the archives staff.

Taking Notes

Archival collections consist of unpublished pages, either handwritten or typewritten, that are arranged in folders inside archival boxes.  

  • It is important to take careful notes that clearly indicate exactly where you find specific items so you can find items again yourself if you need to, and so others will be able to go back to the original source when following your footnote or bibliography entry.    

  • Be certain to write down the collection name, the collection number, the box number, the folder number or title, and a description of the item itself. Is it a letter?  If so, record the name of the author, the recipient, and the date on the letter if there is one, even if it is a partial date.

  • Format your citations as instructed in the finding aid for the collection. Ask at the repository if you need assistance.


  • Be aware that restrictions may limit your ability to access, handle, copy, or quote from unpublished archival materials.

  • Collections may be stored offsite and advance notice might be required for access.

  • Permission might be required before certain collections may be used.

  • The materials may have been microfilmed or copied for preservation purposes and researchers may be required to use the surrogate formats rather than the original documents.

  • See the Restrictions section of the finding aid and/or speak with archival staff to find about any limits that might restrict your use of a collection.

Evaluating Sources

An essential part of the research process is evaluating sources.  Think about the following questions as you use archival materials. The questions are relevant at the collection level as well as the item level.

  • Who created the source / collection?
  • What was its original purpose?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What may have been left out?
  • Why was this item / collection saved?
  • How does this source fit in with the rest of the collection? / How does the collection fit in with the rest of the holdings in the repository?
  • Does the source / collection raise other questions?

Source:  The Information Literate Historian

Quoting from Manuscript Collections

  • If you wish to publish quotes from unpublished materials in a special library collection, you must request permission from the repository as well as from the appropriate copyright holder(s). 

  • The administrative information section of a finding aid may explain the procedures for requesting permission to quote in publication.  If not, or if you need additional information, contact the repository staff.

Citing Manuscripts & Archives

Established rules for citing unpublished primary sources can't cover every possible variation, so it can be difficult to know exactly how to cite materials in notes and bibliographies.  The key is to follow your chosen citation style as best you can and to be consistent within your document.   

Electronic finding aids often include a preferred citation.  Use that information as you craft your bibliography entries.  Also look for links to automatically generate citations for the digitized items you discover in online portals and library websites. 

Following are tips for citing unpublished sources from the APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and the National Archives, as well as a succinct guide from the Archives at CUNY's Hunter College that includes sample citations.  


Copyright & Unpublished Material
An introduction for users of archives and manuscript collections from the Society of American Archivists.

Information about copyright holders and how to locate them can be found in the Watch File, a joint project of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT, Austin and the University of Reading in the UK.
Provides 12 standard rights statements for online cultural heritage. Learn about the various copyright statements you may encounter as you use digital collections in your research.

Research Journals

A research journal can help you stay organized as you delve into sources for your project.  Keep a running list of the relevant people, organizations, events, places, dates, and themes you discover in your reading.  And keep track of the repository, website, and database searches you do to streamline your efforts as your project moves forward. A record of your research will help keep you focused.

Research Photographs

If you are taking digital photographs of an archival collection for reference purposes (also see below), be sure to have an organized work flow and follow it every day.  It is easy to become overwhelmed with images if you don't have a strategy in place for organizing them and reading through the images. 

  • One way to organize research photographs is to use the free photo management tool called Tropy.  You can use Tropy to file, annotate, tag, search, and export images.

  • Here's another way to do it:   Write the date and the name of the library you are using on a piece of paper and take a photo of that before you do anything else.  This marker will enable you to easily find the start of a day's photos when you return to browse through them.  Then, as you work, take photos of the cart, the outside of the each box, the box label, and the folder label before photographing what's inside the folder to maintain accurate records of the materials you consult.  Organize your photos at the end of each day.  And back up everything, multiple times, on flash drives, to be sure your work is not lost. 

Reproductions: Copies & Digital Photos

  • Check a repository’s website to find out about reproduction policies before you go.

  • Some archives allow self-service, non-flash photography, some will photocopy a certain number of pages for researchers per day, and others may provide scans.

  • There may be fees for these services and it may take some time to receive copies.

  • Copies are usually provided for reference purposes only.

  • If you wish to request copies for publication, inquire about the repository’s policies and fees. You will likely need to provide the an exact citation for the item you would like to have copied (collection name and number, box number, folder number, description of the item) and indicate where the item will be published (dissertation, book, journal article, artwork, exhibit, etc.).

Working with Unprocessed Collections

Not all collections in libraries (or private collections) are fully processed and described in finding aids.  Sometimes collections will have only a very broad description and/or a brief container list.  In some repositories these minimally processed collections are closed to researchers, but in others, researchers are allowed to use them. 

When you are given access to an un- or under-processed collection, keep the following tips in mind: 

  • If possible, do a quick inventory of the materials, noting boxes, volumes, file cabinets, etc.
  • Note any existing groupings of materials and order (chronological, format, subject).  Archivists may maintain these groupings when/if the collection is processed.
  • Take detailed notes, including dates, recipients of correspondents, and titles of documents.
  • Speak with the staff at the repository or the administrator of the collection if it is privately held to be certain you understand and can agree to any restrictions that may be imposed on researchers wishing to quote from the collection in publication.

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research from the SAA

This handy guide from the Society of American Archivists explains how archives function and details how to find and use archival materials in your research.

Terra Cognita: Graduate Students in the Archive

Read about the landscape of archival research and the experiences of graduate students in archives and libraries around the world in this report from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  

Between 2003 and 2015 more than 200 CLIR Mellon research fellows made 991 visits to 750+ libraries, archives, museums, archaeological sites, and private collections in 64 countries, and wrote 177 reports about their experiences.  Read the full text online.

A few quotes from the report:  

“Discovery is a key part of the research process, but tools for discovery are often incomplete or difficult to use, if they exist at all.” (p. 21).

"Regular communication between researchers and librarians or archivists can make a crucial difference in the success of a researcher’s project, especially when not all information about a collection is contained within finding aids" (p. 21).

"Serendipitous discovery was an important part of many fellows’ research projects” (p. 21).

Researchers should be "aware and wary but at the same time open to what they find, knowing that it is incomplete and that it tells a story that is as much about the collection and its practices as about the subject they are researching (p. 27).