Skip to Main Content

Introduction to Archival Research

Archival Research

What are archives?

Archives house collections that can contain unpublished and published materials that have research or enduring value that are preserved by institutions or organizations.  The materials are often unique, rare or fragile and may be the only copy in existence.  They can be made up of manuscripts, photographs, objects, audio and video recordings, correspondence, diaries and book collections.  Universities, corporations, governments, historical societies, museums and religious institutions can all have archives.


How do you access archival materials?

Since archival materials are unique, rare or fragile they cannot be checked out.  You must visit the archive and use those materials in a reading room.  Every institution has different policies so always check with the archive before you visit.


Planning a visit:

  • Contact the archives: Check the institution's website, sometimes you need make an appointment in advance.  Email or call the archives and talk to the staff about what you are interested in.  The staff may be able to give you more information about the collections.  Collections may also be stored offsite and take time to retrieve.
  • Review finding aids:  Determine the collections and boxes of materials that interest you and bring that information with you.
  • Check hours: Confirm the hours the archives are open.  Around holidays always confirm that the archives will be open.
  • Review policies:  Look at the requirements to view materials.  These policies will tell you what identification you will need, handling procedures, what electronics you can bring.
  • Review services:  Look at the fees for reproductions, what policies are in place to publish materials, if photography is allowed.
  • Time:  Always allow more time than you think you will need.  Archival research takes time and it often will take more time than you think as you find new sources, collections or items that you hadn't anticipated.

A note on copyright

Archives often try to determine the copyright status of the materials in their collections.  If the archives owns the copyright of materials they will note it in the finding aid or when you reproduce materials.  However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the researcher to determine the copyright status of materials they use in publications.  You will often also have to fill out permission to publish forms and archives may have other requirements for publishing their materials.

Making copies of materials for research purposes is almost always an option at archives.

Footer for USD LibGuide v2.0