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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 to Do and Not to Do

  • Wash and thoroughly dry your hands.
    • Clean hands reduce the risk of damaging materials.
  • Handle materials carefully.
    • For certain items, especially photographs, you will be asked to wear (nitrile) gloves which the repository will provide. Be aware that current best practices do not ask researchers to wear white gloves when using materials.
    • Do not write on or on top of the materials.
    • Keep materials on the table unless otherwise instructed by the archivist.
  • Keep the materials you are using in the same order that you found them.
    • For example, do not put the folders from various places in the archival box together in the front of the box because those are the ones you want to look through first.
    • Keeping the materials in order is important so that future researchers can locate the materials in the order specified by the finding aid and so that archivists will not think something is missing because it is not in its designated location.
  • Cradle bound books with proper supports.
    • A staff member will likely set the book up for you on a book cradle to protect the spine.
    • They will also supply "snakes"--these are weights to keep the pages down and reduce the chances of pages being torn or marred.
  • Keep track of what you looked at where.
    • Write down the the full bibliographic citation and name of the repository of the materials you are using.
    • If the repository allows you to take images (be sure to ask before taking a picture) with your cell phone, take a shot of the item along with its folder that has the collection number, title, date, and folder number.
    • Nothing is more frustrating than trying to cite something months later only to realize you don’t know where the information came from and then can't use that critical source in your project.
  • Take good notes.
    • Keep track of any peculiarities you encountered and write an explanation of why it seemed odd and what you intend to follow up on.
    • Single word, marginal notes will be unhelpful down the road. Make sure whatever you note down also includes the context of what you were thinking when you wrote the note down.
    • If you are working on a particular item and it refers to something else you had seen, make note of that and put the specific reference and location of that item in your notes.
  • Don't argue with the staff.
    • Even if you did everything you were told to do, don't make a big deal about something. The last thing you want is to do is come across as argumentative and unappreciative.
  • Back your notes and digital images up while onsite. 
    • The unexpected (hard drive crashes, someone steals your laptop, you thought you saved your files before shutting down...) will happen, so save, save, save.

Keep in Mind

  • Copyright
    • It is your responsibility to find out who holds the copyright for the materials you are using and secure permission from the rights holder if you plan to publish them.
    • For most items, citing your source is sufficient (in a footnote or endnote).
    • For most photographs, it is the photographer who holds copyright, not the author of the book the photo is in or the publisher. Be sure to check if you are working with photos.
  • Restrictions
    •  Donor agreements, laws, or other legislation such as the Family Educational Rights Act (FERPA) or the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) may restrict you from using certain materials.
    • Fragility of materials.
  • Preferred Citation
    • Some Archives or Special Collections libraries ask to be credited in a certain way for use of their materials. This information may be provided (though not always) on the finding aid, the website, or in the user agreement you may have been asked to sign upon arrival.

Be Aware - Procedures Vary

Archives or Special Collections libraries have some general procedures. These vary, but be aware that you may be asked to do things that may seem unusual compared to using a regular library.

  • You will be asked to store your personal belongings in a locker or other designated area and to finish and/or discard any open food or beverage you have with you before entering the reading room.
  • In most instances, you will not be allowed to wear a bulky coat or bring a jacket into the reading room with you.
  • You will be asked to register upon arrival.
  • You may be asked to show a current form of identification. Some places required a government-issued ID (driver's license, passport); others may accept a student ID card; some places no longer ask for ID.
  • The stacks are "closed." You will need to identify what you would like to use and request the materials ahead of time. Upon arrival, a staff member will bring the materials 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.
  • 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 scan or take a digital photograph of an item, but policies vary. Be prepared to sit and transcribe the document.
  • You will generally be supervised by staff while using materials because many of them are unique or fragile.
  • Your materials, including notes, may be searched by staff when you leave.