Archives preserve and give access to original records, the historical material and primary resources on which much research must be based. Doing research in archives can be time-consuming, but very rewarding. You're likely to find personal stories, diverse perspectives, and documents that haven't been looked at in decades.
Many archives are digitizing and sharing their collections online. You can find documents using keywords or full-text search, and view high-resolution copies. This guide has links to a variety of digital collections that will enhance your research.
Digitization only scratches the surface of the records that are available to visitors to archives. When you are able to conduct your research in person, you'll have access to original papers, diaries, correspondence, photographs, films, maps, artwork, and more.
- Contact the archives you would like to visit ahead of time, to confirm that they have the records you are looking for.
- Most archives have listings of their collections available online; some do not, or those listings may be incomplete.
- Check the archives' hours, and whether appointments are required.
- Most archives will require you to register as a researcher, and you may need to provide ID.
- Most archives will have restrictions on what you can bring into the research room. You will not be permitted to eat or drink. You may be supervised, and may be required to wear gloves when handling original materials.
- Archives have different policies on making copies of documents for you, and many will charge for copies. Others may permit you to use a digital camera to make your own copies.
Doing research in archives is a skill, and can be more challenging at first than using books or digital sources. With time, practice, and guidance from an archivist, it can be very rewarding.
- A set of records from one creator is called a fonds, or may also be called that person's papers or collection. More commonly, a collection is a set of records from multiple sources brought together.
- A guide to a fonds or collection is called a finding aid, and it will describe the records generally, and often provide a list of files or items. Some finding aids are very general, and others are very detailed. You may be able to view the finding aid online before visiting the archives, so you'll know which files or boxes you will want to see.
- You may find a single file that tells you everything you want to know, but it's more likely that you'll need to take your time, reading through different records, piecing the story together.