Archival Research Skills

Conducting research with primary materials in an archive is different from library habits such as checking out books and using electronic resources. Rules governing the use of primary materials are often more complex, and access varies from archive to archive.

To make the most of your visit to an archive, try the following strategies.

Browse the website: Most archives have websites with important information such as an index of collections, online finding aids, research applications or other required forms, hours of operation, directions, and contact information.

Search the archival collections: Archives have a variety of ways to access their collections and information about those collections are available through several resources.

  • Many archives use a search engine for searching collections on their website.
  • Both online and print copies of finding aids and indexes are available at most archives.
  • Some participate in national databases that include the holdings of multiple institutions.
  • At some universities and research institutions, archival holdings may be available through the online library catalog.

Contact the archive: It is a good idea to email or call an archive prior to a planned visit. Archival staff may be able to give you more help if they know about your visit and your research interests in advance. You can also find out if there are any requirements you have to fulfill before you can use the holdings of the archive.

Understand the policies: Because special collections house unique and irreplaceable materials, access to them is often more restricted than in the average library. Some typical policies are:

  • Collections are generally not housed on open shelves. Instead of helping yourself, you must request to use them, sometimes prior to your visit.
  • In the reading room you may be allowed to bring in only paper and pencil or a laptop computer. The archive will often provide storage facilities for the rest of your belongings.
  • Archives may regulate if and how you may publish or reproduce materials from their collections, so it is important to inquire about publication rights and copyright.