An introduction to Archival Research
Ellen Belcher, Special Collections Librarian firstname.lastname@example.org
Archival repositories exist to provide resources for researchers! You have a right to use them!
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. Such as the John Jay Criminal Transcripts of NY Collection
- 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. see: Implications of Archival Labor and 'The Archive' is not an Archives
- Some ‘archives’ do not have a physical location at all but are web-based, many of these are community archives and activist collections. Michelle Caswell writes on this sort of archive.
- Special note on government repositories and agencies: You may need to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process to obtain the records or information you need. Many citizen groups interested in open government transparency such as Reclaim the Records are putting successfully FOIA’d documents online, Govt. agencies too, for example: FBI Digital Vault
- 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, lengthy application processes. Some repositories close for extended times over the summer. Start your inquiries very early for foreign research.
Finding Archival and other Primary Materials
- WorldCat – the first step is to search your topic here, restricting to “Archival” and/or “Internet” (for digitally available materials)
- Secondary Sources – Archival materials used for articles and books are cited in the references – this is a great way to find repositories and collections to support your research.
- Google Search – The John Jay special collections gets most of our researchers through google searches!
Selected list of Archival Repositories in NYC
A Few Archival Repositories outside of NYC