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*Archival Research: Why Archival Research?

What Is Archival Research?

What is archival research?

Archival research is research involving primary sources held in an archives, a Special Collections library, or other repository. Archival sources can be manuscripts, documents, records (including electronic records), objects, sound and audiovisual materials, or other materials.

What is an archives?

An archives is "an organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations."

What is a repository?

A repository is "a place where things can be stored and maintained, [including] any type of organization that holds documents, including business, institutional, and government archives, manuscript collections, libraries, museums, and historical societies, and in any form, including manuscripts, photographs, moving image and sound materials, and their electronic equivalents."


(Definitions from the Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology (Richard Pearce-Moses, 2005)

Archival research can be challenging, but it can also be tremendously rewarding (and even fun!).

You may not find exactly what you were looking for, but you may also find much more than you expected.

Before You Get Started...

  1. Talk with your advisor and/or other relevant faculty members, instructors, TAs, to brainstorm topic ideas and potential sources/source types. Your professors are your subject experts!
  2. Get familiar with relevant secondary sources on or related to your topic. For information about searching for secondary sources, see the general History research guide. **Bonus: a secondary source's footnotes/endnotes will direct you to primary sources, archival and otherwise.

Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user LoadStone

Why Do You Need To Know About Special Collections/Archives Collections?

Many primary sources that are available online are archival or Special Collections sources
which have been digitized and made available by those institutions.

Not every source is available online. Most Special Collections/archival libraries are not able to digitize all of their sources (collections) or make them publicly available.

(Why isn't everything digitized?? Read this excellent article "Why Don't Archivists Digitize Everything" by Samantha Thompson, an archivist for the Region of Peel Archives (in Brampton, Ontario, Canada) to learn more about the labor and costs involved in digitization.) 

Not every individual item is listed in a collection's finding aid. Many Special Collections/archival libraries do not catalog their collections by individual item. Instead they provide descriptions to the box or folder level.

Not every collection will have an online finding aid. While most institutions are working to get finding aids online, this is an ongoing process for many organizations. You may need to contact an archivist to learn more about which finding aids are available online, and which are not. Some archives will create catalog records for unprocessed collections as a means to signal their existence. Further, research/subject guides may also list unprocessed collections.

Not every library (including archives and Special Collections libraries) is registered with WorldCat. WorldCat and ArchiveGrid (which draws on WorldCat) include information from many, many libraries, but do not include materials from every library/repository.

Not every repository uses standardized descriptive methods. While the majority of archives adhere to professional descriptive standards, some do not. This can make it more difficult to find materials using WorldCat or other similar databases/catalogs.

Most archival/Special Collections libraries will not lend their materials. Due to rareness, fragility, or other restrictions, most items in these kinds of libraries are not available for Interlibrary Loan. Researchers may be able to request that copies of relevant records be made available through Interlibrary Loan, however there may be a charge.

If the repository is able to offer you reproductions (photocopies, PDFs, or audiovisual materials) of the materials you want to look at, expect to pay a fee. Typically there will be a charge for ordering reproductions, often including charging by the page.

Most archival sources are in their original language. Archives and Special Collections libraries do not typically offer translations of their materials. Other scholars or editors may have published or otherwise made available translations of materials.

Your local repositories may not have the archival resources you need. Archives and Special Collections libraries tend to collect deeply in specific areas, rather than widely in many areas. Smaller repositories may also focus on collecting materials relevant to their local community.

Reasons to contact a repository's archivist before planning a visit:

Archival research typically involves one or more of these options:

  • Visiting the repository in person.
    **Some repositories offer competitive travel fellowships or other funding. Check their website for information about funding opportunities.
  • Ordering reproductions (paper or electronic) of relevant materials (if option is available)
  • Hiring a proxy researcher (some repositories may offer a list of possible proxy researchers for hire: see for example, the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center's policy regarding proxy research).

Contact the repository directly (contact information is generally available on a repository's website) to learn more about:

  • Specifics regarding their holdings
  • Registration information (what do you need to do/bring if you visit the repository, whether you need to set up an electronic account, etc.)
  • Reproduction availability, fees, and related information
  • Open times / pull times (some repositories pull boxes at set times, so you may have to wait for requested materials)
  • Proxy researcher information

Archivists are happy to help orient you to their repository, provide information about their holdings,
and assist you with reproduction orders where available.

Archivists will not, however, do your research for you!

Types of Archives

The Society of American Archivists identifies the following types:

  • College and university archives are archives that preserve materials relating to a specific academic institution. Such archives may also contain a "special collections" division (see definition below). College and university archives exist first to serve their parent institutions and alumni, and then to serve the public.

    Examples: Stanford University Archives, Mount Holyoke College Archives.

  • Corporate archives are archival departments within a company or corporation that manage and preserve the records of that business. These repositories exist to serve the needs of company staff members and to advance business goals. Corporate archives allow varying degrees of public access to their materials depending on the company's policies and archival staff availability.

    Examples: see SAA's Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada.

  • Government archives are repositories that collect materials relating to local, state, or national government entities.

    Examples: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, the New York State Archives, City of Boston Archives.

  • Historical societies are organizations that seek to preserve and promote interest in the history of a region, a historical period, nongovernment organizations, or a subject. The collections of historical societies typically focus on a state or a community, and may be in charge of maintaining some governmental records as well.

    Examples: The Wisconsin Historical Society, the National Railway Historical Society, the San Fernando Valley Historical Society.

  • Museums and archives share the goal of preserving items of historical significance, but museums tend to have a greater emphasis on exhibiting those items, and maintaining diverse collections of artifacts or artwork rather than books and papers. Any of the types of repositories mentioned in this list may incorporate a museum, or museums may be stand-alone institutions. Likewise, stand-alone museums may contain libraries and/or archives.

    Examples: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

  • Religious archives are archives relating to the traditions or institutions of a major faith, denominations within a faith, or individual places of worship. The materials stored in these repositories may be available to the public, or may exist solely to serve members of the faith or the institution by which they were created.

    Examples: United Methodist Church Archives, American Jewish Archives.

  • Special collections are institutions containing materials from individuals, families, and organizations deemed to have significant historical value. Topics collected in special collections vary widely, and include medicine, law, literature, fine art, and technology. Often a special collections repository will be a department within a library, holding the library's rarest or most valuable original manuscripts, books, and/or collections of local history for neighboring communities.

    Examples: Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago, American Philosophical Society Library.

(Adapted from Laura Schmidt, Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, available on the Society for American Archivists' website).