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Special Collections and University Archives

Introduction to Archival Research

An introduction to Archival Research

Edited from original by Ellen Belcher, Special Collections Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY

Archival repositories exist to provide resources for researchers!

Anyone can be a researcher of primary materials.  However, there are protocols which should be followed when becoming an archival researcher. Here are some tips.

  • Read the finding aid(s), online indices and collection information before making an inquiry.
  • Make an appointment as far in advance as possible. Be prepared with dates that you would like to come in and be mindful that most archival repositories are open for research during regular business hours.
  • Check the digital and microfilm collections available from the repository – you may not be given access to originals that have already been reformatted. Most microfilm copies of originals are available by interlibrary loan.
  • Read secondary materials in advance to have basic information and research questions formed – ie: if there is a biography of the person who’s papers you are coming in to research, you should read it!
  • Be prepared to conduct your research under supervision at a table with only a pencil and a few sheets of paper and wearing gloves. Wash your hands and obtain a pencil before you arrive.
  • Know that photocopies and scans are usually done by archives staff, so cannot be done immediately and may cost a bit more than you are used to. Many repositories will not photocopy nor scan bound or fragile materials. Many repositories place limits on the amount of copies or scans that can be requested. You might be able to use a camera or phone to take pictures [no flash].
  • Allow for time to sit and read the materials in the archival room and take notes by hand. Archival research takes time and is different to the sort of research we normally do in the 21st century.
  • Ask about computer and camera use in advance.
  • Respect the labor of professional archivists and librarians, thank them and acknowledge them in your writing. Do not claim to have ‘discovered’ hidden treasures without their help.
  • Special notes on government repositories and agencies:
  • Special notes on international research:
    • If you are researching once colonialized countries, consider looking for materials in the national repositories of former colonizers such as The British Library.
    • Archival Repositories like the Bibliothèque nationale de France may require a fee for a reading card.
    • Other foreign repositories may require letters of introduction (a letter in English may not be appropriate, you might need a translator), lengthy application processes. Some repositories close for extended times over the summer. Start your inquiries very early for foreign research.