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Archives and Archival Resources

Information about locating and conducting research in archives.

What Should I Do before I Go?

Before you visit Archives or Special Collections, there are some preparatory steps you should complete. This helps ensure that you will have access to the relevant materials and be able to make the best use of your time and the time of the archivist, curator, or other staff. Keep in mind that Archives and Special Collections are not open stacks. This means you are not allowed to show up and browse the shelves for materials. You will need to request items you wish to consult ahead of time. This could be anywhere from a few minutes to a week or two in advance.

Locate Materials

Contact Archives and Special Collections Departments

  • Look for contact information on the website.
  • Contact the Reference Archivist or inquire using the general email if there is a particular staff member with expertise or familiarity with your research topic. He or she may be able to point you in the right direction or suggest other repositories with similar materials relevant to your research.
  • Plan to make contact well in advance of your planned visit especially for international departments of Special Collections or Archives. It may take a few hours, a week, or longer before the materials you wish to consult will be available. In some cases, you will not get a response.
  • Be polite and professional whether over the phone, by letter, or email. Be sure to check all correspondence for grammatical and spelling errors. Thank the person for their time.
  • Make sure your correspondence is specific and concise. Making a vague inquiry about what they have may not get a response. Remember that this is your project, not theirs. Describe concisely the purpose, background, and context of your project.
  • Ask if there are an entrance fees.
  • Confirm the days and hours you may access materials.
  • Ask how to request materials. Is there a form that must be filled out in hard copy? Is there an online request form? Can you make a request by email? So you need to make the request in writing and, if so, to whom?
  • Ask if there is internet access and if there are accommodations to use personal laptops to access the internet (whether wired or wireless).
  • You may want to inquire whether department of Special Collections or the Archives offers any type of funding opportunity for researchers.
  • Familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures of the archive you intend to visit. See below for specific considerations.

Policies and Procedures to Use Materials

Policies and procedures vary from one place to another. Check the website for specific details or contact the department of Special Collections or the Archives for information. Below are a few general guidelines.

  • You may need to present a “Letter of Introduction” to access research facilities, especially in foreign countries. This may be from your advisor, home institution, or from another source such as the American Historical Association.
  • You will need to present photo identification (depending on the location, a student id card may not be sufficient. Be sure to carry a government-issued id such as a driver’s license or passport).
  • You may also need some other document such as proof of current residence (a current utility bill, for example). Check the website or contact the archives to find out what you will need.
  • No food or drink may be brought in.
  • No pens are permitted. These could cause irreparable damage to the materials.
  • Policies about taking photos with digital cameras vary. Check what the specific archives' policy is.
  • Policies about photocopying and scanning materials also vary. Inquire about these before you go. If you are unable to copy or scan, you may need to allocate more time at the archives to get the information you need.

Other Preparations

  • Look into what type of accommodations (if you are planning to be there more than one day), restaurants, and transportation are available.
  • Plan how much time you will need to spend at the archives. Be realistic and allot time for unanticipated problems or discoveries.
  • What might you encounter that you were not expecting? This could include running across something interesting in the materials your are using, being shown other potentially useful materials in the collection by the curator or archivist, needing more time to read the documents because the handwriting or language is difficult to read, needing to take time to verify information, general fatigue, or not planning enough time in the first place.