All repositories have unprocessed, uncataloged collections. Sometimes researchers are permitted to use them. Ask if there are unprocessed materials related to your topic.
Repositories often have specialized indexes and reference titles that relate directly to their archival holdings. When available, these can greatly streamline your research.
1. Make sure you have explored secondary sources and published primary sources. A thorough understanding of your subject will help enormously as you look through archival folders and boxes. Without knowing what to look for, you may miss important documents or waste time trying to decipher unrelated materials.
2. Read the entire finding aid for the collection. Every section of the finding aid, from the administrative information to the container list, will inform you of essential details. The biographical and historical notes will be particularly useful for putting the materials in context and the scope and content note will let you know whether or not the collection contains material relevant for you. But the entire finding aid should be essential reading.
3. Closely review the repository's website. In addition to the basics such as the hours of operation and street address, repository websites often contain a wealth of information that will help you make the most of your visit. You may learn about reading room protocols, advance registration requirements, reproduction policies, and whether laptops and personal cameras are permitted, among other details.
4. Contact the staff by email or phone. This step is essential. Always contact the staff to let them know which collections you would like to use and when you plan to visit. The collections you need might be stored offsite and require advance notice for retrieval. In some repositories, appointments are required. Permission might be necessary before you can use certain materials. The reference staff can also help you discover other materials that are related to your topic and provide answers to logistical questions that are not answered on the website.
Following are links to the research visit or home pages of some of the manuscript and archival repositories in and around New York City. Rules and regulations vary by institution, so always review the website and contact the staff before visiting.