Archive Discovery: A How-To Guide

This guide is intended to teach you how to discover archives and evaluate online collections.

Supplemental Reading

Archives: Some Definitions and Explanations

What is an archive?

An archive as "a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved" (Merriam-Webster). Archives contain archival materials, which "are information objects that serve as evidence of past events" (Peter Van Garderen, 2007).

Although some institutions might have more distinct meanings for the two terms, "special collections" is often at least related to, if not synonymous with, "archives."

Boxes of archival documents at The National Archives

Photo by The National Archives (United Kingdom) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


What can you find in an archive?

Whether in person or through online searching, researchers can locate many unique primary and secondary materials in an archive. For instance, many archives preserve and make assessible diaries, letters, photographs and other primary source documents. Archives sometimes contain extensive and "hard-to-find" secondary source collections. Examples might include specialized collections of research books and articles on specific topics. For instance, Thomason Special Collections (at Newton Gresham Library) contains a large special collection of research books and articles pertaining to the history of criminal justice. In addition, many archives house "vertical file" collections-- these are files of pamphlets and clippings on subject areas and are usually local in nature. For instance, an archive may maintain an vertical file on the local town government or on specific people and places that are important on a local, and not national, level.


Who can use material in an archive?

Archives are often available to any researcher; however, there are usually strict guidelines about exactly how collections may be accessed and used:

  • You might have to schedule an appointment in advance, and you may be asked to provide a justified research purpose.
  • Archives are generally set up so that only a librarian or archivist can actually retrieve materials; you can't just browse a shelf and pull down items yourself as you can in a regular library collection. Be prepared to tell them what you want to see. (Spend some quality time with finding aids! For more details, see the next box below.) 
  • If you are interested in several folders or boxes, there may be restrictions on how many items you can have at one time; you may need to give one box back before getting the next.
  • Archives almost always have rules about bags (storage lockers or cubbies may be provided), writing implements (always pencils, no pens!), and the use of equipment such as scanners, copiers, and cameras. Be sure you ask what is allowed.

Finding Aids

But how do I know if an archive has something on MY topic?

Archivists work diligently to create detailed descriptions of their collections, not only describing the items in the collection, but often also providing background history on highly relevant people, places, and events.

Archivists create tools called finding aids which describe the collection and contain an index of its contents. This may be a simple inventory of folders or a detailed list of items within the folders.


Here is an example of a simple container list from the National Archives; this briefly describes the contents of each box in "Records of the Bureau of Agricultural Engineering, 1894 - 1947 -- General Correspondence, compiled 1915 - 1931."

Simple container list which briefly describes the contents of each box in an archive collection


Here is an example of a more detailed style of item list; this one comes from the Houston Public Library (via TARO) and describes the "Nathaniel 'Bill' Barnes Collection." This provides a greater level of detail, such as who and what is pictured in each photograph.

Item list which describes every item in a box in an archival collection


Once you identify an archive which has collections that might be relevant to your topic, locate their finding aids and spend some quality time assessing the content descriptions to determine what they have and how it might be relevant to your project.

Depending on the archive, finding aids might not be provided online, but it is becoming more common, to the great benefit of researchers. When digging through an archive's website in search of finding aids, keep an eye out also for closely related terms like inventory or collection description. They may also simply present a "catalog" for you to search; an archive's catalog will usually search its finding aids and (if applicable) any digital items they have.

Copyright Considerations

Just because an item is in an archive--even a digital one--copyright concerns and professional courtesy still apply. You should always cite the archive in your research paper or other intellectual work.

You should also ASK before republishing something found in an archive. You may need to obtain permission to reprint/republish the material.

Digital Archives: Some Definitions and Explanations

What is a digital archive?

A digital archive is similar in purpose to a physical archive, but the historical documents and objects that provide evidence of the past have been digitized (often by scanning or photography, unless a document was created digitally in the first place) and made available online.

Digital archives are usually created with a goal of preserving historical objects and making them available to researchers.

Being asked to find a "digital archive" is much more specific than just being asked to find a "website."


Who creates digital archives, and are they always free?

Many digital archives fall into one of three unofficial "groups":

  1. Many are provided by physical archives, libraries, universities, museums, government agencies (local, state, or national), or other historical or cultural associations. These are often provided free of charge.
    An example of this is the American Memory Project from the Library of Congress:
    The American Memory Project digital archive website
  2. Some are created by individual people, small groups, or non-profit organizations who share a common interest (such as family members who digitize interesting historical materials from their family, or the children of veterans from a particular military unit who create a collection of artifacts honoring that unit).
    One example of this is Tom Briggs' "1966 Vietnam" photo archive:
    The 1966 Vietnam photo archive website

    In general, this second type of collection will also be free to access. However, the quality and authority of these collections is not always as reliable as those collections created by institutions. These collections may be excellent, but they may also be incomplete, biased, or simply not curated strategically to fulfill specific research and preservation goals, the way that library and museum collections usually are. 

    [Please note: NO judgment is intended or implied regarding the specific collection illustrated above.]

    That is not to say these collections cannot be valuable. A researcher must simply be sure to do some homework before deciding how much, and for what purposes, to rely on a collection.
  3. Others are put together by a publisher or another for-profit business who charge a fee to purchase or subscribe to the collection. Some collections may be marketed towards individuals, especially smaller collections or those with a specific genealogical focus, but larger and more expensive collections are often sold only to libraries. 
    One example of this is Fold3, which provides some collections for free but requires users to purchase "memberships" in order to view other collections:
    The fold3 website which provides some free and some paid archives
    Individual researchers may access those collections at institutions where they are affiliated (for example, where a person works, takes classes, or has a library card). Sometimes a researcher may also access collections owned by institutions where they are not affiliated. However, if it is available, this kind of access for unaffiliated users almost always requires a physical visit to the library rather than online access. Inquire about visitor access to databases before traveling to an institution to verify whether it is available.


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