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Introduction to Archival Research

Best Practices for Archival Research

  • Be gentle with the materials. Some archival materials are fragile. Use care when handling them. Follow all rules of the archives; they are there to protect the materials. Rules may include:
    • Wear gloves when handling materials
    • Use pencils only (pens can break and spill ink)
    • No food or drink in the archives
    • Limitations or bans on personal scanners
    • Use digitized collections when available, rather than handling fragile originals
  • Understand how archival collections are different from library collections. Archival collections contain different kinds of materials than library collections, and are arranged differently. Understanding these differences will help with successful archival research. For more information, check out the "What is an Archival Collection" tab at the top of this page.
  • Learn to use finding aids. Finding aids describe the content of archival collections. When finding aids are available, they can be a big help in determining if a particular archival collection is useful to you.
  • Take precise notes. If you don't write down where you found something - including the collection name, box number, and folder number - it may be very difficult to find it again. There may also be restrictions on copying and scanning, either for copyright reasons or because of the fragility of materials. Archival materials do not circulate, so you can't check them out or bring them home. Write down everything you want to remember!
  • Ask the archivist. The archivist often has knowledge about the collection that does not exist elsewhere. They may be able to provide related materials, answer questions about the materials you are looking at, or explain confusing materials. The archivist can also answer general questions about archives, and even help with citing archival materials. Please ask!


When you visit an archives, you may notice security features such as:

  • Security cameras
  • A registration form that asks for your name and contact information
  • Sign-in sheet and picture ID checks
  • Limitations on bringing personal belongings into the reading room
  • Archival collections behind locked doors (i.e. no "browsing the stacks")
  • Limitations on how many records you can view at one time

Archives contain unique, one-of-a-kind resources. Aside from their important research value, some archival materials have monetary value, and archives theft is a problem. Security measures help protect the collections so that everyone can use them far into the future.