How to get started – Background Research and Forming a Research Question:
It helps to be prepared before you start your research in Archives and Special Collections.

  • Do some background research on your topic. This will help you to find sources faster and judge their relevance and meaning more accurately.
    • Use published sources and trusted web sites to collect background information on your topic.
    • Read citations, bibliographies and footnotes, looking for references to archival or special collections.
    • Look for information on important people, dates, groups and events related to your topic.
    • Familiarize yourself with key terms and concepts for the time period and topic you are researching.
    • Review online inventories for collections (Finding aids) to find sources that fit your topic.
    • Some inventories (finding aids) have histories and biographies that will help you understand the records you are using. Read these before you use the records.
  • It helps to come to the archives with a topic or research question in mind. Discuss your research with archival staff throughout your project. They are familiar with the collections and may be able to help you to refine your research topic or offer suggestions for search strategy.

How to find sources for your research in Archives and Special Collections.

  • Search ASC collection guides (finding aids) online Finding Aids
    • Important! This search page does not include all collections. If you don’t find what you are looking for, contact the staff. They may know about materials that are not described online.
    • Searching Tip: You may have to try more than one search to find what you need. If you do not get any results, try other terms, use more general or more specific terms, or try terms that were used in the era you are researching. For example: Searching for the modern term “wellness” results in only 8 matches, but searching for the older term “hygiene” results in 457 matches. Staff may be able to suggest search terms for your topic.
  • Search MNCAT, the University of Minnesota Library catalog.
  • Search UMedia for digital images and records from Archives and Special Collections.
  • Search the Digital Conservancy
    The University Digital Conservancy is a venue for faculty to deposit copies of their works for long-term preservation and provides open, searchable access to other institutional digital resources.
  • Look at Archives and Special Collections Web Sites
    Sites may include lists of collections, links to digital content, online exhibits and other resources.

Can I see actual documents online? In some cases the answer is "yes", but most documents in ASC collections are not online. Selected items from Archives and Special Collections are online. New items are added regularly. Online documents are available in the following locations:

What is a finding aid and why should I use it?
A finding aid is a guide (or inventory) for a group of archival records, personal papers, or manuscripts. It is a tool to help researchers determine if the materials relate to their research, find where sources are located, and understand and interpret the materials they are using. A finding aid may be a brief summary or a detailed description and inventory. It contains information on:

  • The amount and types of material available,
  • Dates of the records,
  • Selected topics covered by the records,
  • Who created the materials,
  • How the materials are organized,
  • The history or biography of the creator of the records
  • Some finding aids also contain inventories of boxes or folders in a collection.

How to make the most of your research time.

  • Plan ahead and leave enough time to complete your research before your project is due.
  • Research in Archives and Special Collections usually takes more time than online or regular library research. The amount of time needed will vary depending on the scope of your project.
  • You may need to look through a large amount of material to find information or piece together evidence from different sources.
  • The materials are not always arranged in an order that is easy to use. It might take time to find the information you need.
  • Some documents are handwritten, fragile, faded, or written in another language. It may take time to read this type of material.
  • Materials in Archives and Special Collections may only be used in Andersen Library during business hours (Monday, Tuesday and Friday, 8:30-4:30. Wednesday and Thursday, 8:30-7:00.) Start early. Don’t count on being able to do all your research the night before your project is due.
  • Make an appointment before visiting Archives and Special Collections. Most materials can be retrieved from storage on the same day. However, some collections are stored offsite and need two days to retrieve.

Research Strategies for using Archives and Special Collections. Or, what to think about when you read a primary source.

  • Consider where you should start your research based on the collection guide (finding aid), library catalog, your list of resources, and staff recommendations. These will help you decide which boxes or items to use first. Skimming the materials first and then going back for an in-depth review can be a useful research strategy.
  • With your topic or research question in mind, be open-minded and let the sources "speak" to you. If you try to find evidence to prove a specific point, you may draw conclusions that are not supported by the sources, waste your time looking for something very specific that is not in the collection, or miss more important or interesting information.
  • Expect to have to piece together evidence from various sources and not find a single document that tells “the whole story."
  • Look for information on key people, dates, groups, organization and events related to your topic.
  • Look for prominent or recurring issues, subjects and ideas. See if patterns emerge.
  • Ask yourself what is missing. Write down questions or missing information you want to research.
  • Pay attention to the tone of the materials. Do the sources have a perspective or reveal their creator’s attitude regarding your topic? Are they objective, biased or even fictional or exaggerated?
  • Take careful notes.
  • Be open-minded and let the evidence “speak” to you. If you try to find evidence to prove a specific point, you run the risk of drawing conclusions that are not actually supported by the materials, wasting your time looking for something very specific that is not in the collection, or missing potentially more important or interesting information.