Archives Basics

last modified 2012-08-30T10:01:09-04:00
What do you need to know before you visit archives or special collections?

Planning Your Visit

Here are some tips to make the most of your time in archives, shamelessly adapted from A Survival Guide to Archival Research by ,, and

  • Establish a relationship with the reference person or archivist. Learn who knows what about which topic.
  • Ask about photocopying policies and procedures before beginning your research. What are the costs, procedures, forms, restrictions, and timeframe? Will you be able to make your own copies, or will you need staff assistance? Are there restrictions on using digital cameras or portable scanners?
  • Bring change, especially quarters, for self-serve copiers, copies from the microfiche reader, parking meters, and vending machines. Have cash and checks for other payment needs; many archives cannot accept credit or debit cards.
  • In addition to asking about parking meters and fees, find out if there are restrictions on where you are allowed to park. Will you need a permit? Is the street address on the archives' web site the best one to enter into your GPS unit?
  • Bring pencils and erasers. Archives do not allow pens due to the possibility of ink leakage. Leave your ballpoint pen at home, and bring a sharpened #2 pencil.
  • Ask about lunch and snack facilities. You may want to bring snacks, particularly if there are no vending machines or stores nearby. You will not be allowed to eat in the reading room, so ask about break room areas.
  • Ask about using your laptop in the research area. Some institutions prohibit their use. If you are allowed to have a computer with you, make sure you will have plenty of power (i.e., bring an extra battery and/or a charger).
  • You may be required to leave purses, laptop bags, backpacks, jackets, etc. in a locker or storage space outside the reading room. Ask before you visit, and dress accordingly. Archives are often cool (or downright chilly); you may prefer to wear a long-sleeved shirt or a sweater, especially if your jacket will need to be put away elsewhere.
  • Bring a photo ID. If there is any doubt about whether you will be granted admission to the archives, call ahead. Some institutions require proof of scholarly research or a letter of introduction.
  • Confirm the archives' hours before you travel. Many small institutions close for an hour at lunch, are only open a few days each week, require appointments, or otherwise keep odd hours. Some even require submission of requests for materials a day in advance of your arrival. Surprises are not fun when they are inconvenient.
  • If the repository has a web site, review it in advance. Most will list hours, rules, and contact information. Take advantage of online finding aids and research guides for preliminary research. Search the online catalog, and jot down call numbers and titles to bring with you.


Planning ahead helps to ensure that your time is spent with the records you need instead of being bogged down with logistics. Research takes time; reading nineteenth century handwriting on a microfilm screen is very different from flipping through a published book. Knowing what to expect before you go will provide a more efficient and more enjoyable research experience.



*Published by the American Historical Association in Perspectives, December 2004.