Introduction to Archives
Welcome to the OWL Archival Resources Webpage! Here you will find guidelines for visiting archives and requesting/handling materials, as well as suggestions and advice for citing archival resources.
What are archives?
Archives are collections of materials and artifacts kept and preserved by organizations like universities or historical societies. Archival materials are often unpublished and are preserved for their intrinsic or research value. The contents of the collections range widely, from those related to an organization’s history, to rare books collections and special collections that might be subject-specific. For example, the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections holds copies of the school’s yearbook alongside research papers from the Psychoactive Substances Collection, as well as Amelia Earhart’s personal letters. Archival materials might be paper documents, such as personal letters, meeting minutes, concert programs and photographs, but could also be less conventional historical artifacts like letter jackets or trophies. Archival collections may have different names depending on the kinds of items they house. For example, some collections of rare books are referred to as Special Collections and may not even have "archive" in their title. For our purposes, we will simply use the term "archives."
Why should I visit the archives?
Archives offer you a unique chance to do research based upon primary source materials. Some professions or disciplines require archival research as the foundation for many projects or papers. When you choose a particular source from an archival collection, you might be the first person to look at that document since the archivist who catalogued it. Using archives will ground your research in a particular historical context and could move an existing project in new directions.
Who uses archives?
Archives are not always limited to professional academic researchers. Indeed, many universities welcome alumni or student researchers. Archives might also have materials to help with personal or genealogical research.
Where do I start?
While you should always refer to the archives website before visiting, the following pages will give an overview of how to prepare for your visit. Archives differ from libraries in several important ways, necessitating advanced planning and preparation. For example, archival materials are often very delicate and sometimes are one-of-a-kind. As a result, you cannot take them home with you. So, it is very important to get the most out of your time there.
Requesting Materials from Archives
Once you have searched online and identified archival materials relevant to your research, you will need to submit a request to view the materials. Requesting materials from archives is different from requesting materials from libraries. A library usually has materials on open shelves for patrons to physically select by themselves. An archival collection is different because it usually is not physically accessible to patrons to browse. In most archives, patrons cannot physically select materials off of shelves. Instead, most archival collections are stored at a secure location until a researcher requests to see them. This secure location ensures that the materials, which are often rare and irreplaceable, are protected from being lost. These locations are often climate controlled, which helps preserve the materials from deterioration.
When should I request materials?
Since archival materials are housed in a secure area, only archives staff members have access to them. In order for you to use them for your research, you will need to ask the archives staff to retrieve the materials for you. There are two ways to do this:
- You can go to the archives physically and ask the staff to retrieve the materials for you in person.
- You can email or call the archives ahead of time and request to see the materials at a future date.
The second way is usually the preferred way to request materials from an archives. Sometimes materials are housed in secure locations farther away from the physical archives. This means that bringing them to the archives reading room for you to view can take some time—perhaps a day or more. If you request your materials 24 hours or more before you plan to visit, you are more likely to be able to view the materials in a timely manner.
How do I request materials?
When requesting the materials, it is important to give the archives staff a specific description of the materials you would like to view. There are three main parts of a description you should include in your request for materials: the title of the collection, the unique identifier, and box and folder numbers. First, many archives name their collections. When you request your items, you should tell the archives staff the name of the collection you would like to see. You can find the name of the collection on the Finding Aid. Here is an example of a request for an archival collection in the Purdue University Karnes Archives and Special Collections. The title is in bold.
The second part of your description you should include is a unique identifier, or “call number.” Libraries already have a specific system of uniquely labeling each book it collects. You may be familiar with these systems. They include the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System. However, due to the unique nature of collections in archives, many archives develop unique systems to describe their collections. Few archives’ unique classification systems are exactly alike. If the archives you are searching includes a system to identify collection items, you should write down the specific call number for the item you would like to request. When you request the items from the archives, tell the archives staff the call number of the item you would like to request. This will aid the staff in retrieving the item quickly. Here is an example. The call number is in bold.
Lastly, when requesting items, you will need to know specific information about the containers housing the materials you would like to request. Many archives store collections in boxes. The boxes contain the collection items, and these items are stored in folders. Many archives assign a number to each box and folder in a collection. Therefore, when you request an item in the archives, you can also refer to the box and folder numbers to request items. Here is an example. The box and folder numbers are in bold.
Finally, if you still have questions or concerns about how to request materials from the archives, you may email or call the archives or library for assistance.
If you want to find research materials in archives, you will need to read a Finding Aid. This document describes the materials in an archival collection and gives you a summary of the materials housed in that collection. Reading a Finding Aid before viewing a collection can help save time and ensure that you find materials relevant to your research. In many ways, a Finding Aid is like a library catalog entry because it provides you with information about the contents of a book and what materials are in an archival collection. When you search an archival website, your search results will likely direct you to a Finding Aid of a collection.
You may wonder: “If I find a collection that I’m interested in, why can’t I just check it out to determine if it is what I need for my research?” The answer to this question reveals how archives are different from libraries. First, archival materials never leave the archives, so all collections must be viewed in the archives. Second, some archival collections are quite large. It would take a long time to study an entire collection to determine if it is relevant to your research. To save you time and make your research experience easier, a Finding Aid contains three unique elements that will help you determine if a particular collection is worth studying: the Scope and Content Note, Biographical/Administrative History Note, and Contents Listing.
Scope and Content Note
A Scope and Content Note is a brief summary of the contents of a collection. In addition to a summary, a Scope and Content Note also contains highlights and limitations of a collection so that researchers can know whether the collection will be useful for their research. Sometimes a Scope and Content Note is called a “Scope Note.”
A Scope and Content Note often begins by briefly explaining where the collection came from (e.g. a family or corporation), what years the collection covers (e.g. 1882-1967), and the general kinds of materials it contains—such as letters, reports, or photographs. If a collection is large, you may encounter a list of series in the Scope and Content Note or in another part of the Finding Aid. A series is a group of archival materials within a collection that are alike in some way. Sometimes materials in a series are of the same format, such as a series of photographs. Other times, materials in a series share the same function, such as a series of business meeting minutes. You can use series to guide your research. If you are searching for a particular topic within a collection, you may search for a series that relates to your topic and exclude series that are not related. Below you will find an example of a Scope and Content Note from a collection in Purdue’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections.
Biographical/Administrative History Note
A Biographical/Administrative History Note explains the history of the creator of the collection. If the creator of the collection is a person, then the Note will provide a biography. If the creator of the collection is an institution or business, then the Note will provide an administrative history. Sometimes this section is called a “Background.”
A Biographical/Administrative History Note provides information that establishes an historical context for the collection. In other words, this Note tells researchers the history of the people and organizations involved in creating the materials in the collection. The Note might include information on significant dates, major events, and important people related to the collection. You can use the Biographical/Administrative History Note to determine basic facts about the people and organizations in the collection. For example, if you are looking for information on people who attended a particular university, you might search a Biographical Note to determine if a particular person attended the university you are researching. Below you will find an example of a Biographical/Administrative History Note from a collection in Purdue’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections.
A Contents Listing is a list of the materials in a collection that also includes information about the physical location of the materials. For example, many collections are housed in boxes. A Contents Listing will give you a list of boxes and the materials housed in each box. Sometimes a Contents Listing is referred to as “Container Contents” or an “Inventory.”
You can use a Contents Listing to determine which boxes hold materials that would be relevant to your research. Inventories vary in length and detail. Some inventories list every single item in a collection. If the collection is large, the Contents Listing will be quite long, and it may take you some time to find the materials that you are looking for. In this case, it may be useful to first examine the Scope Note and find the series that is most relevant to your research topic. This may help narrow your search by restricting it to only the boxes in that series. Other inventories do not list every single item. Instead, they may give a summary of materials housed in a folder or a box. For example, a Contents Listing may state that a folder contains reports from a certain date range. If you are looking for reports from these years, this folder may be worth examining in detail. Below you will find an example of a Contents Listing from a collection in Purdue’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections
Visiting the Archives
Your Arrival at the Archives
Most archives will require you to complete a registration form before you can enter and begin working with their collections. So, before your visit, check their website or call ahead to find out what forms of ID you should bring with you. It is also a good idea to confirm what outside materials, such as paper, writing utensils or cameras, are allowed. Prohibited items will need to be stored in a locker. Some archives may also provide a bag and coat check service. Once your belongings are stored, you can enter the reading room and begin your archival research.
Reading Room Etiquette
Generally, every archives has a centralized reading room in which you can browse the materials you requested. Sometimes you will have your own space to read and research. More commonly, however, you’ll be sharing this space with other scholars and researchers. Following a few simple etiquette rules will help your experience run smoothly.
- In terms of noise, please be courteous of your fellow researchers. Avoid talking as much as possible. If you are are working with a colleague in the reading room, do so in a whisper.
- Familiarize yourself with the procedures for handling archives materials. As always, the archivist can guide you and answer any questions about using the materials.
- Some archives allow you to take photographs of archival materials for research purposes. If you wish to take photographs, you should ask for assistance from the archives staff. You may need to fill out a form beforehand.
- If you wish to make photocopies or take photographs of an item, ask an archivist for permission first. Some items may be protected by copyright. Bring cash or coins in case there is a charge because the archives may not accept other forms of payment.
Archival materials are collected and housed in archives because they are rare and unique. Because of this quality, these materials often cannot be replaced. If archival materials are damaged, the historical content that they contain may be lost forever. Therefore, it is important to practice care when using archival materials. Below you will find guidelines on how to use specific kinds of archival materials in ways that protects and preserves them for future researchers.
- DO NOT eat or drink while using archival materials. This protects the materials from oils, juices, and other liquids that might damage them.
- DO use a pencil when taking notes for research. DO NOT use a pen. This protects the materials from permanent ink stains.
- DO keep your notes and archival materials separate. DO NOT place your notes on top of archival materials. If you do this, you may accidentally write on your notes page. This could transfer your writing to the archival materials underneath, leaving permanent indentations or other marks that damage the materials.
- DO write down information about the location of materials you are using, such as the box and folder number, so that you can properly cite the materials in your research.
- DO NOT place anything on the materials that might damage them, including paper clips, staples, post-its, or tape. This protects the materials from damage caused by adhesives and metals.
- DO NOT rearrange materials in folders or boxes. Maintain the original order in which you found the materials.
- DO NOT remove any materials from the archives. Check your folder and notebooks before you leave to make sure no archival manuscripts or photographs accidentally got mixed in with your materials.
Manuscripts are various forms of papers, including (but not limited to) correspondence, reports, meeting minutes, speeches. Manuscripts may be in the form of fragile or brittle paper. Older manuscripts may be vulnerable to tears and crumbling. Some manuscripts are copies printed on onion-skin paper, which is also easy to tear. Furthermore, manuscript collections are also vulnerable to disorganization. Oftentimes manuscript materials are housed in folders with a specific order that is important to understanding how the creator of the collection used the materials. The organizational information is also important for researchers. In order to protect the materials physically and organizationally, following these guidelines:
- DO keep the manuscripts in the order they appear in the folders. This can be accomplished by placing the open folder and pages on a flat surface in front of you and turning the pages like a book.
- DO turn pages slowly. This protects them from tearing.
- DO NOT wear gloves while handling manuscripts unless the archivists request that you do so. Archival gloves can do more damage to manuscripts by increasing the possibility of tearing the pages.
Rare books are published or unpublished volumes that are limited in number. Often rare books will also be old and fragile; however, some rare books are new but were not printed many times. Regardless, you should treat rare books with care, being sure to follow these guidelines:
- DO use a book support or a book pillow to support the binding of the book. These supports can reduce stress on the spine and keep the book from becoming unbound.
- DO use book rope or book snakes to hold pages down. These materials also maintain the binding of the book.
- DO turn pages slowly to avoid tearing, folding, or crinkling. This helps preserve the content for future researchers.
Photographs in archival collections may come in a variety of forms, including daguerroeotypes, cyanotypes, and other obsolete formats of photography. Some collections may also contain negatives, either in film or glass form. All of these forms are fragile and vulnerable to oils from skin that can accumulate and damage the photographic materials. To use these materials in a safe way, follow these guidelines:
- DO wear cloth gloves when handling photographs and negatives if the archives staff ask you to do so. This protects the photographic materials from oil damage.
- DO maintain the original order of the photographs. This helps future researchers find the materials they are looking for.
- DO NOT take photographs of the materials without permission. Flashes from cameras can damage the photographs. Furthermore, the photographs may be copyrighted and taking photographs of them may violate copyright.
Oversized materials come in many forms, but they all share the same feature of being larger than normal manuscripts. Materials that are often oversized include maps, portraits, and posters. These materials should be handled similarly to their manuscript counterparts. However, there are few extra guidelines to keep in mind when using oversized materials:
- DO NOT fold oversized materials. Folding materials can damage the paper and make it difficult to read some of the content printed on them. However, if the materials were folded when you found them, it may be acceptable to fold them. Ask the archives staff for help regarding oversized materials.
- DO use two hands when turning pages of oversized materials. This reduces risk of tearing them.
- DO keep your notes and materials separate. Because oversized materials take up more space than normal materials, it is easy to mistakenly place note paper and notebooks on top of them. However, if you write on top of the materials, the indentations from your pencil can damage them.
- DO keep the materials flat on a hard surface.
- DO NOT walk while holding the oversized materials. This keeps the materials from tearing.
Artifacts come in many formats. In general, any three dimensional object that is not in a manuscript, photographic, or book form may be an artifact (there may be some exceptions). Artifacts are often stored in boxes or are wrapped with tissue paper or bubble wrap to protect them from accidentally being bumped or accumulating dust. Because the types of artifacts vary so much, there are few universal rules for handling them beyond what has already been mentioned. Ask the archives staff about proper use of artifacts in research.
Even though these rules may seem daunting, archivists are on hand to help you through the process of handling materials. Please remember, these rules exist to preserve archival materials for future use.
Citing Archival Resources
Once you have determined which materials are relevant to your research, you will need to know how to reference them properly in your paper or project. Citation is one important challenge you must face when working with archives. Because archivists strive to preserve the unique order of collections when they are donated, universal guidelines for citing archival sources have not been established. However, we suggest the following methods based on best scholarly practices.
How to Cite Archival Materials
You have two viable options for citing archival sources.
- Check the archives website or contact them for a preferred citation.
- Use the adapted MLA citation we propose below.
If you choose Option 1, first check the website of the library or archival system, which may contain guidelines, or LibGuides, for referencing their artifacts. Here's an example of a Purdue University LibGuide.
You may also call or email the archival staff to obtain or ask questions about preferred citation practices.
If you choose Option 2, you will need to adapt the MLA citation format to meet your needs. To start, refer to the MLA citation practices most relevant to the particular genre of your materials. For example, the most recent MLA handbook will contain citation guidelines for comic books, film strips, commercials, photographs, etc. Next, include as much detail as possible to help a fellow researcher locate your artifact in a given archive. Depending on the system in place, you should refer to box numbers, folders, collections, archives name, institutional affiliation and location. Since archives are dynamic in the sense that collections may be sold, donated to another archives, reorganized and in extreme cases damaged or lost, you should also include the date accessed.
The following example is based on a combination of MLA citation practices and the Purdue LibGuide:
Genre-appropriate MLA Citation. Box number, Folder number. Unique identifier and collection name. Archives name, Institutional affiliation, Location. Date accessed.
Summers, Clara. Letter to Steven Summers. 29 June 1942. Box 1, Folder 1. MSP 94 Steven and Clara Summers papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN. 20 May 2013.
While these two citation options are recommended, you should consult with your publisher or instructor to determine what information they value most in your citation.
Digital Archives Materials
Many archives have collections that are available for use in a digital format. These may be called e-archives or digital archives. The digital materials may include photographs, documents, and maps, as well as “born-digitally” materials, such as websites and applications. Many archives also make these digital materials available through their websites.
Digital archives can be convenient research tools because they provide researchers with content from a collection without the requiring the researcher to physically be in the archives reading room. When using digital archives in your research, you may use the following tips as a guide:
- If the digital archives are available online through the archives website, begin by orienting yourself to their content. Digital archives often provide access to many different kinds of collections. In order to determine if the digital archives have materials relevant to your research question, you should attempt to locate a description of each collection. Although some archives may be physically large, they may only have a small portion of their materials available digitally. Therefore, it is important to determine which collections are available digitally. This will help you determine if the digital archives will be useful for your research.
- Be aware of copyright policy for each item in the collection. Because digital archives are often available online, it is easier for researchers to make copies of the materials. However, before you make copies, you should be aware of the copyright policy of digital materials. Archives may or may not have copyright over the materials they make available digitally. In some cases, the archives may only have permission from the copyright holder to make the materials available digitally; the archives may not hold the copyright for the materials themselves. Many archives will provide copyright information online about digital collection items. If you are unsure about the copyright use policy on a particular item, contact the digital archivist at the archives.
- Be patient with using digital materials, as some interfaces may be challenging or slow. Digital archives aim to provide researchers with access to archival materials that, at times, can use a large amount of computer memory. The size of the files in a digital archives often reflect the fact that the digital archivists and staff members have attempted to provide scans of materials at a high resolution, which gives the researcher a more realistic experience in viewing the collection. However, the large file size may also slow down the experience of viewing the collection. Furthermore, some digital archives interfaces may be difficult to navigate. Digital archivists are usually available at the archives and are happy to assist you if you have questions. Send them an email or give them a call.
- Use the archives’ preferred citation for digital collections. If the archives does not specify a preferred citation, use the one below. Citing digital items is sometimes challenging because the web address for a particular item may change over time. In order to provide a more stable reference point for digital items, Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) and Archival Resource Keys (ARK) were developed. DOIs and ARKs are unique strings of numbers, letters, and symbols that link to a single digital object or item. A DOI or ARK does not change even if the web address for an item does change. Some digital archives use a DOI or ARK number to link to specific items in their collections.
Some archives also have their own system of assigning unique identifying numbers for digital items. If a digital item has a unique number assigned to it, you should include it as the first element in your citation. This should be followed by the collection’s unique identifier and collection name. Then include the archives name, its institutional affiliation, and location. Finally include digital reference information: the DOI, if available; a general URL for the archives, such as www.universityarchives.edu, and a date accessed. Below is a model along with an example from Purdue University’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections:
Genre-appropriate MLA Citation. Unique item number. Collection unique identifier and collection name. Archive name, Institutional affiliation, Location. DOI. General URL, Date accessed.
Earhart, Amelia. Letter to George Palmer Putnam. 1937. MS. b4f49i1. The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers. Virginia Kelley Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. ark:/34231/c6kh0k90. earchives.lib.purdue.edu, 28 July 2013.