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Archives and Archival Resources

This guide provides a general introduction to using archives and archival resources. You will find tools to locate archives and archival materials, information about using archives and archival materials, and some select resources including links to some

What Should I Know Before I Go?

In order to make your research trip as successful as possible, there are a few steps you should take before you go. These steps will help ensure that you will have access to relevant materials, be able to make the best use of your time, and benefit from the expertise of the archivist, curator, or other staff you encounter.

Keep in mind that Archives and Special Collections are not "open stacks". In contrast to being able to walk into Oxy's Library and search the shelves in the Tiers for what you want, you will need to request items you wish to consult at the Archive or Special Collections Library ahead of time. How far in advance you must request items varies. This could be anywhere from 1-2 days to a week or two (sometimes longer) in advance. On occasion, you can request items onsite, but this is not the standard. 

Locate Materials

Contact the Archives or Special Collections Departments

Making Initial Contact is a Good Idea

  • 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. They 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 Special Collections or Archives outside of the US. Some repositories store materials offsite or have extremely small staffs that require advance notice. This could be a couple of days or even 2 weeks or more. In some cases, you may not get a response to your inquiry. You can send a follow-up email or try calling.
  • 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. State who you are (for example, I am a senior at Occidental College conducting research for my senior comprehensive thesis/project) and 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. Be aware that some repositories may close for lunch, the afternoon siesta, religious or local holidays, or other reasons.
  • 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 can vary widely from one repository to another. Check the website for specific details or contact the repository for information about accessing and using its collections. 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.
  • Many repositories require a current 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, drink, or tobacco products may be brought in or consumed on site.
  • No pens are permitted. These could cause irreparable damage to the materials.
  • Policies about taking photos with digital cameras vary. 
  • 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. Some places will do this for you, often for a fee, and it may take multiple days or a couple of weeks for them to fill your request.

Other Helpful Things to Prepare for Your Trip

  • Look into what type of accommodations, restaurants, and transportation are available.
    • Is there lodging centrally located?
    • Does it offer a refrigerator/microwave (for multi-day stays)?
    •  If you have special dietary needs or preferences, see what options you will have.
    • Is there a grocery store nearby? 
    • What type of transportation is available?
    • How much will it cost?
    • Do you need to make reservations in advance?
    • Is there a transit card that you can purchase in advance?
  • Plan how much time you will need to spend at the archives.
    • Be realistic.
    • Allot time for unanticipated problems or discoveries.
  • Are there other archives, museums, libraries, or historical societies nearby that might have useful collections?
  • Expect the unexpected.
    • You might run across other interesting items in the materials your are using.
    • The curator or archivist might show you other potentially useful materials in the collection.
    • You may need more time to read the documents because the handwriting or language is difficult to read.
    • You may need additional time to verify information.
    • The archive might shut down for part of the day or be closed for a holiday or other reason.
    • Doing research is tiring. You may not be able to focus and work as long as you thought you would be able to in one day.