Toolkit: Using Special Collections and Archives in the U.S. and Abroad

Before You Go

Locating Materials

 More Extensive List of Resources


Different Doings in Special Collections and Archives (compared to libraries)

  • No browsing the shelves. You will need to request the materials you want to see and a staff member will bring them to you.
  • Generally you are allowed to use only item at a time; this may be a single book or single box of documents, or a single folder from a box.
  • Users must register upon arrival.
  • Materials must be used in the reading room. You will not be able to check them out and take them home or to your office. You might be allowed to photocopy, scan, or take a digital photograph but policies vary. Be prepared to sit and transcribe the document.
  • Users are generally supervised by staff while using materials because many of them are unique or fragile.
  • Your materials, including notes, may be searched by staff upon leaving.


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).
  • No food or drink may be brought in.
  • No pens are permitted. These could cause irreparable damage to the materials.


Contacting Special Collections Departments and Archives

  • Look for contact information on the website.
  • Contact the Reference Archivist or inquire 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Be prepared to 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.


Other considerations

  • Look into what type of accommodations (if you are planning to be there more than one day), restaurants, and transportation are available.
  • 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.


While Onsite

Challenges You May Encounter

  • Language – What language is the material in? Can you read and understand that language?
  • Handwriting – Can you read the handwriting? Some documents are written in handwriting that is not used today and require specialized training (palaeography)  to read them.
  • Conventions – Documents often were written using conventions particular to their time period. These include things such as abbreviations, different currencies, different dating practices, different weights and measures, and words no longer in use.
  • Terminology – Archives and Special Collections use some specialized terms to describe the materials. Be familiar with those relevant to the time period and type of document you will be using.


Things To Do and Not To Do

  • Wash your hands so that they are clean before beginning work.
  • Handle materials carefully. Some repositories may ask you to wear gloves that they will provide to protect objects, especially photographs.
  • Use foam supports to cradle books with delicate bindings when asked.
  • Do not write on the materials.
  • Do not lick your fingers to flip pages.
  • Maintain the original order of the materials you are using. For example, do not pull out folders from various places in the archival box and put them together in the front of the box because those are the ones you want to use first. Keeping the materials in the original order is important. When they are not in their original order, it could lead to the archival staff assuming the materials are missing or could inconvenience future researchers who cannot find the materials in the order specified by the finding aid.
  • Write down the the full bibliographic citation and location of the materials you are using. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to cite something months later only to realize you don’t know where the information came from.


Things to Be Aware of

  • Copyright – It is your responsibility to find out who holds the copyright for the material you are using if you plan to cite from or publish them.
  • Restrictions – Some materials may have restrictions governing their use set by the donor, laws, or other legislation such as the family Educational Rights Act (FERPA) or the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPPA).


Resources and Reference Tools for Working with Archives

  • Using Manuscripts and Archives: A Tutorial (Yale) – An excellent introduction to methods for locating primary source material. Some of the information is specific to Yale, but there is considerable information for locating manuscript and archival materials in other repositories. A new version of this site is planned in the future, but the archived version remains relevant.
  • Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research (Society of American Archivists)
  • Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology (Society of American Archivists)
  • Reference at Your Desk (National Archives and Records Administration) – A set of quick reference tools, including links to archival institutions throughout the world, biographies, bibliographies, copyright information, vital records, statistical reports, and much more.