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Requesting Materials from Archives

Summary:

This resource discusses conducting research in a variety of archives. It also discusses a number of considerations and best practices for conducting archival research.

This resources was developed in consultation with Purdue University Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections staff. 

Contributors:Michael Maune, Nicholas Marino, and Gina Hurley
Last Edited: 2013-10-06 03:02:32

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:

  1. You can go to the archives physically and ask the staff to retrieve the materials for you in person.
  2. 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.

Dear Archives Staff,
I would like to request to see the Steven and Clara Summers papers. I would like to view them on April 23, 2013. Please let me know if this would be possible. Thank you.
Researcher Name

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.

Dear Archives Staff,
I would like to request to see MSP 94 Steven and Clara Summers papers. I would like to view them on April 23, 2013. Please let me know if this would be possible. Thank you.
Researcher Name

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.

Dear Archives Staff,
I would like to request to see Box 6 Folder 2 of MSP 94 Steven and Clara Summers papers. I would like to view them on April 23, 2013. Please let me know if this would be possible. Thank you.
Researcher Name

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.

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