» See also these Archives and Special Collections Department tips for new researchers

Holdings in archives differ from materials found in libraries and museums.
  • Holdings in archives are often unique, out-of-print, rare, or specialized formats. Most are one-of-a-kind items and they provide documentation of past events from the perspective of participants and first-hand observers. The records and papers are the unselfconscious byproducts of corporate bodies carrying out their functions and responsibilities, and of individuals or families living their lives.
  • In contrast to the discrete, published items collected by libraries, the objects (usually called "collections") collected by archives are complex bodies of interrelated, unique materials which share a common provenance (creator or origin).
  • Formats are varied, and may include photographs, audio and visual recordings, and artifacts, as well as paper-based material personal or organizational records such as correspondence, memoranda, diaries, minutes of committee and board meetings, reports, speech and lecture notes, financial records, maps, blueprints, scrapbooks, and newspaper clippings. »Learn more about the types of materials in archives and their significance via the online exhibit/tutorial, "Medium as Message."
Policies and procedures will be different.
  • Archives usually keep a record of patrons through registration procedures.
  • Archives generally require patrons to work in designated areas (a reading room).
  • Many archives require patrons to place personal belongings in lockers.
  • Patrons usually need to request materials (closed stacks). Retrieving material from stacks may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, depending on storage arrangements. Time spent waiting for material to be retrieved can often be minimized or eliminated by contacting the archives ahead of time, letting them know what you are interested in, and making an appointment to visit.
  • Archives may require patrons to wear gloves while handling some materials.
  • Most archives do not allow self-service copying.
  • Before bringing your own scanner or digital camera, ask ahead about any policies.
  • Archival materials rarely circulate.
Archival materials are also organized differently.
  • Generally manuscript materials are not incorporated into an overall subject classification. Instead they remain parts of groupings called "collections," which are formed around the individual, organization, or institution whose activities account for their existence.
  • Materials are often kept in the original order given to them by their creator.
The tools you will use to identify the material you would like to use are different.
  • Due to their complexity and manner of organization, it is usually not easy to locate and access materials in an archives which are related to your topic of interest without assistance. Ask the archivist or curator for help.
  • Ask about computerized databases, similar to a library's online catalog.
  • Ask about published guides.
  • Ask for collection inventories or finding aids.
Collections of personal papers or organizational records are usually accessed via "finding aids" or "inventories."
  • A "finding aid" or "inventory" refers to the descriptive tool, published or unpublished, printed or electronic, which explains the content and organization of a collection of archival materials. » See "How to Read and Use a Finding Aid" Online Tutorial
  • Finding aids/inventories may be print or electronic, and in the form of databases, catalogs, indexes, lists, or guides.
  • A finding aid or inventory will usually include general information like the name of the creator of the material, the date span of the material, and the quantity. It may also include a biographical or historical sketch of the creator and a narrative description or summary of the collection. Generally, there will be various information on how the material is organized (it may be broken down into a number of "series"). For many collections, the finding aid will include a listing of all the boxes and the folders contained in them, sometimes with a great deal of detailed information on their contents, and sometimes just a basic listing.
To get the most out of your time at the archives, plan ahead.
  • Give yourself enough time to work with the staff, finding aids, and collections.
  • Ask about availability, due to off-site storage.
  • Make an appointment.
  • Since most archives do not allow-self service copying, be prepared to wait for copies to be mailed to you later or plan time for taking your own notes.