Tools & Techniques for Archival Research

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research

The Society of American Archivists have prepared a guide to help you understand archival research. 

Before you Go

Archival Research Takes Preparation

Archives and Special Collections departments are not like libraries: materials are not openly available in the stacks. They are usually held in a secure location and brought out to researchers, one box or item at a time, to view in a safe and controlled environment like a Reading Room. Furthermore, each place will have their own procedures, hours, and restrictions that you will need to know. That means you will need to plan well in advance to make arrangements with each repository; even if departments are accustomed to large numbers of walk-ins, they would still prefer some notification that you are coming so they can prepare staff to help you best.


You can even read some reviews of archives to prepare for the unique circumstances. 

Always Contact the Repository in Advance

Archivists are experts

Archival collections can be messy and hard to untangle. The archivist knows the collection better than anyone else, and can help you to untangle some confusing or non-existent finding aids, or explain some oddities about the collection. This is a good chance to communicate with the librarians about restrictions on specific collections, or any other details you should get settled before arriving.  But, better yet: the archivist can guide you to some lesser known collections or point out some truly wonderful finds that they have been waiting to show the interested researcher. Librarians are your friends! Write them!

Confirm policies and visiting hours

Check their webpage to see if policies for photography and/or reproductions are listed.  If not, when you contact the repository to let them know you are coming and what collections you would like to see, be sure to ask about their policy on digital photography. Policies vary: there are still some archives that charge a daily rate for camera use. Some encourage camera use, usually with some restrictions on flash and sound. Some repositories forbid the use of copy stands or tripods, while others might always have these onsite already. Remember that visiting hours at special collections are often limited. Make sure you are able to maximize your time.

Review guidelines and restrictions

Each finding aid will list collection restrictions, but you should always confirm with the repository to make sure you get the appropriate approvals if they are required.

Request materials in advance

Sometimes materials are held off-site and the repositories need advance notice to make sure the materials are available when you need them.

See if any of the materials circulate or are available in alternative form

Know the Finding Aid

This helpful guide can give your more information on How to Read a Finding Aid

Once you have located sources, you will want to carefully review the finding aids to make sure that the collections have the kinds of materials you are looking for, that they are available for use, and to help you plan ahead for how much time to spend in person (or if you need to go at all).

Some places have finding aids readily available online; some collections might not have finding aids at all, especially for small collections. Others might have finding aids available in paper or digital form but haven't managed to make them available online, but are still available to researchers upon request.

Kow the size of the collection. The finding aid will tell you the size of the collection in linear or cubic feet. To understand the full size of a collection, you can use the linear footage calculator.