Skip to Main Content

Archival Research: Using Collections

Handling Materials

Archival materials are often one-of-a-kind. Closely follow the instructions you are given at the repository, which may include some or all of the following guidelines:

  • Do not eat or drink near special collections materials. 

  • Handle documents carefully. 

  • Turn pages gently.

  • Inform library staff when you encounter volumes with uncut pages.

  • Keep folders of documents flat on the table.

  • Do not hold documents up in the air to read them. 

  • Do not lean on volumes or manuscripts.

  • Do not disturb the order of the documents. 

  • Use pencils only when taking notes. Do not use not pens or highlighters. 

  • Wash your hands before handling documents. 

  • Be sure to alert archives staff if you encounter damaged or extremely fragile material that may need special attention before it can be safely handled. 

  • Do not take photographs without asking permission.

  • Follow all the instructions of the archives staff.

Evaluating Sources

An essential part of the research process is evaluating sources.  Think about the following questions as you use archival materials. The questions are relevant at the Collection level as well as the Item level.

  • Who created the source / collection?

  • What was its original purpose?

  • Who was the intended audience?

  • What may have been left out?

  • Why was this item / collection saved?

  • How does this source fit in with the rest of the collection? / How does the collection fit in with the rest of the holdings in the repository?

  • Does the source / collection raise other questions?


Copyright & Unpublished Material
Society of American Archivists

Information about copyright holders and how to locate them can be found in the Watch File, a joint project of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT, Austin and the University of Reading in the UK.

Taking Notes

Archival collections consist of unpublished pages, either handwritten or typewritten, that are arranged in folders inside archival boxes.  

  • It is important to take careful notes that clearly indicate exactly where you find specific items so you can find items again yourself if you need to, and so others will be able to go back to the original source when following your footnote or bibliography entry.    

  • Be certain to write down the collection name, the collection number, the box number, the folder number or title, and a description of the item itself. Is it a letter?  If so, record the name of the author, the recipient, and the date on the letter if there is one, even if it is a partial date.

  • Format your citations as instructed in the finding aid for the collection. Ask at the repository if you need assistance.

Reproductions: Copies & Digital Photos

  • Check a repository’s website to find out about reproduction policies before you go.

  • Some archives allow self-service, non-flash photography, some will photocopy a certain number of pages for researchers per day, and others may provide scans.

  • There may be fees for these services and it may take some time to receive copies.

  • Copies are usually provided for reference purposes only.

  • If you wish to request copies for publication, inquire about the repository’s policies and fees. You will likely need to provide the an exact citation for the item you would like to have copied (collection name and number, box number, folder number, description of the item) and indicate where the item will be published (dissertation, book, journal article, artwork, exhibit, etc.).


  • Be aware that restrictions may limit your ability to access, handle, copy, or quote from unpublished archival materials.

  • Collections may be stored offsite and advance notice might be required for access.

  • The materials may have been microfilmed or copied for preservation purposes and researchers may be required to use the surrogate formats rather than the original documents.

  • Consult collection finding aids and archival staff to find about any limits that might restrict your use of a collection.

Citing & Quoting

  • If you wish to quote from unpublished materials in a special library collection, you must request permission from the repository as well as from the appropriate copyright holder(s). 

  • The administrative information section of a finding aid usually indicates the preferred citation for the collection and explains the procedures for requesting permission to quote in publication.

  • Check with repository staff for additional information.