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*Primary Sources: A Guide

A guide to identifying and locating primary sources for conducting research in history.

Find an Archive

There are three main ways scholars discover archival materials:

  • Citations in the literature
  • Advice from experts (faculty, archivists, subject librarians, professional organizations)
  • Search engines and library catalogs (links below)

Google is also an excellent tool for locating archives and archival materials. In your search, try including keywords like "archive" or "papers" with a personal name, organization, or event you are researching.

Tips for Using Archives

Planning ahead is crucial for conducting research in the archives.  Consider these tips to make your visit to the archive successful.

  • Evaluate materials remotely
    • Review finding aids
    • Look for digital versions
    • Email or call the archive (Ask the experts!)
      • Ask about duplication/copy services, InterLibrary Loan options, or local research assistants for hire
  • Plan your visit
    • Check hours of operation and holiday closures
    • Make an appointment
    • Select materials you will need and place a hold or request in advance
  • Rules of the Reading Room
    • Need a letter of reference/introduction? Check the website or call the archive to ask if this is required. Your university librarian or faculty advisor can usually provide this.
    • Photography: check for any restrictions on taking pictures of documents
    • Handling: ask reading room staff for recommendations on how to handle materials
    • Computers: ask if a laptop or other digital device is permitted alongside your notebook and pencils
    • Remember: No food, no drink, no bags, no ink
  • During and after your visit
    • Prioritize what you will look at first, second, ..., last if time permits.
    • Ask questions if you need help or clarification on archive policies or understanding materials
    • Cite all sources - you will need these later
    • Follow up with archivists if you need copies or permission to publish any images
    • Include the archives and archives staff who helped you in your citations and acknowledgments

Tutorials & Publications on using archives

National Libraries & Archives

Historians often use official documents created by governing institutions. Some countries maintain a central, national archive or library that houses these and other important documents. Consider if the materials you need are kept in these national institutions. They might even provide online access to digital copies of some of their most popular and important materials.

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