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 03:01:53
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 If archival materials are damaged, the historical content that they contain may be lost forever.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.