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Finding and Evaluating Archives

How do you locate archives that might have materials appropriate for your research? In addition to using online search engines like Google, here are some resources to consult:

Consult bibliographies and works cited sections in books on your topic. Where did the information come from?

Contact other experts in the field. Which repositories did they visit for their research?

Look for websites dedicated to your topic. Do they list any archives?

Talk to a reference librarian at your local library about accessing the WorldCat database, which includes listings for archival materials stored in libraries all over the world.

Check Archive Finder at http://archives.chadwyck.com/home.do. This site contains listings from thousands of American and British archives (requires purchase or subscription).

Check ArchiveGrid at http://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/. This database contains nearly a million collection descriptions from thousands of libraries, archives, and museums.

Check ARCHIVESCANADA.ca at http://www.archivescanada.ca/. This gateway to archival resources from over eight hundred repositories across Canada contains linked archival repository databases for each province.

Check Archives Wiki at http://archiveswiki.historians.org/index.php/Main_Page. Sponsored by the American Historical Association, this page links to several archives from around the world and provides commentary about the archives from a researcher perspective.

Browse the website of the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/index.html. The Library of Congress is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

Visit the website of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at http://www.archives.gov/. NARA oversees the preservation of United States federal government materials. There are two additional resources that can be accessed through NARA:

AAD (Access to Archival Databases) at http://aad.archives.gov/aad/ is a search engine for some of NARA's holdings of electronic records.

ARC (The Archival Research Catalog) at http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/ is an online catalog of NARA's nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

Search the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) at http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/. NUCMC provides descriptions of manuscript and archival collections from a wide variety of American repositories. The information produced by NUCMC is shared with the WorldCat database (mentioned above).

Check the Repositories of Primary Sources website at http://www.uiweb.uidaho.edu/special-collections/Other.Repositories.html. This site lists over five thousand links to archives around the world.

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives at http://siarchives.si.edu/. The Smithsonian Institution Archives is the record keeper of the Smithsonian—collecting, preserving, and making available the official records of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The next step is determining the extent of materials that suit your research needs in an individual archives. Since every repository is different (by size, funding, technological advancement, hours, collecting areas, regulations, etc.), even experienced researchers must familiarize themselves with how a given repository describes its holdings. Utilizing the tools listed below will help ensure a thorough evaluation of an archives:

Websites: Check the website of the archives you are evaluating, which will often list the repository’s main collection strengths and the topics the materials address. Monitor websites for updates such as new collection descriptions and the addition of digital resources.

Catalogs and Databases: Determine whether the archives you are evaluating has a link on its website to catalogs or databases (similar to those in a library) allowing you to search holdings by subject, keyword, title, author, etc. Many catalogs and databases will link you to finding aids (see below) which will provide more detail about what a specific collection holds. If searching catalogs is new for you, ask a reference librarian at a local library for assistance.

Finding Aids: A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) is a text document providing a description of the contents of a collection, just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. By using a finding aid, a researcher gets an understanding of a collection in its entirety, sees the relationships between its component parts, and locates the portions of a collection pertinent to research. Finding aids sometimes provide narrative portions describing the background of a collection (how and when it was formed, how the archives acquired it, etc.), and how the archival staff has arranged or ordered the materials in the collection.

If the archives you are evaluating provides direct access to finding aids on its website, browse or search the finding aids for content relating to your research. See the Appendix of this guide for a sample finding aid with annotations.

Examples of a variety of finding aids can be viewed through these finding aid consortia websites:

Arizona Archives Online http://azarchivesonline.org
The Online Archive of California http://www.oac.cdlib.org/
Northwest Digital Archives http://nwda.wsulibs.wsu.edu/index.shtml
Rocky Mountain Online Archive http://rmoa.unm.edu
Texas Archival Resources Online http://lib.utexas.edu/taro

Note that finding aids come in all kinds of formats. Some archives just have paper copies to use on-site, while others have word processing documents, PDF, or HTML/XML finding aids that can be viewed on their websites. Downloading and print options vary by repository. Some archives may provide digital copies of finding aids upon request.

Digital Collections: Many archives digitize materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) from their collections and make them available on their websites.  Digitization enables the researcher to view materials without visiting the archives in person. Some digital content is full-text searchable, allowing you to enter words pertinent to your research (such as names or terms) into a search box and then search the document to see whether instances of those words appear. Examine the repository website, catalogs, databases, and finding aids to see whether links to digital collections exist. However, be aware that digital collections often reflect just a fraction of the total holdings of a repository. There may be nondigitized materials at the same institution that are also pertinent to your research. Search holdings listings carefully and ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing nondigitized content.

Note that when searching digital collections online it can sometimes be unclear whether the items you are viewing represent a complete collection or are part of a larger collection. Try to determine the highest collection level for the most complete overview of related items.

Examples of digitized collections may be viewed on the Minnesota Digital Library website at http://www.mndigital.org/reflections/.

Archival Staff: One of the most important ways to evaluate the holdings of an archives is contacting an archival professional who oversees the collections. Archival staff can point you toward resources you may have overlooked. Job titles for such staff positions include archivist, librarian, reference archivist, reference librarian, curator, and records manager. After you have examined the catalogs, finding aids, and website of an archives, call or email the repository to confirm your findings and conclusions. If you find specific materials that seem particularly important during your search, write down the titles, call numbers, or other unique methods of identification from those materials and share them with the staff. Inquire whether you should set up an appointment time to visit and view the materials.

Example: “I am doing a research project involving [describe the purpose, background, and context of your project]. I have already viewed the following [finding aids, catalogs, etc.] on your website, and thought that these specific resources would be useful for my research: [List finding aid or collection titles, book titles, etc. that you have found. Be as specific as possible.] Do you have any recommendations of other relevant materials in your collections? May I visit your repository next Wednesday afternoon to view these items?”

In the case of an archives that does not list collections on its website (or does not have a website), contacting the staff is the only way to ascertain its holdings. Inform the staff of your research project and intent, ask them to clarify what materials are held at the repository, and ask how materials are accessed by researchers. If you are not getting the help you need from one staff member, try another one at the same institution.