Who can help you locate collections?
It's always a good idea to start with the librarians at your own institution, who can help you zero in on a list of repositories to contact.
At Harvard, there is a library liaison or research contact for almost every field. You can ask any of us to help you find out who you should contact, or write to Ask A Librarian (make sure to explain how you're affiliated with Harvard and what it is you'd like to look for).
Fred Burchsted and Anna Assogba, the liaisons for history, help many researchers locate archives. To learn more about searching for collections, see the excellent guidance, resource suggestions, and specific search tips on their Library Research Guide for Finding Manuscripts and Archival Collections.
Where's the biggest or most interesting collection?
The relevant archival material for a particular topic is rarely all in one place: often the challenge is to figure out which of the many collections scattered about the world will offer the richest and most promising leads for your project.
Quick Tips for Preparing to Search
Archival collections and rare books are material objects: remember to think about the historical contingencies that might cause them to be saved, collected together, and located in a research repository---material attributes, cultural conventions, biographical happenstance, heirs, collectors and curators, etc.
Where to search:
- In the U.S., you need to search at least 4 databases (Archive Grid, Archive Finder, WorldCat, and SNAC) - see Finding Collections in U.S. Repositories
- Outside the U.S., look for national catalogs, topical guides, and other resources - see All Countries
- Once you have identified likely libraries and institutions, always search their local websites or portals
- Be aware that many catalog records and finding aids are not searchable - if they exist at all, it may be only in print, and only on-site at the repository
- Sometimes, your best source of information is not a library or finding aid catalog, but rather a secondary source: critical biography, guide to archival sources on a particular topic, a scholarly monograph's footnotes and acknowledgments, etc.
How to search:
- Think in terms of:
- Institutions and organizations
- Social and cultural conventions (why was this material collected and saved? what would the grouping have been called?)
- In library catalogs, look for links to finding aids, which usually contain much more information
- Be creative with your search terms
- phrase searching
- subject terms AND keywords
- format words (e.g. "correspondence," "microfilm")
- personal names OR topics OR events
- Take the time to follow detours
- Ask for help!
Additional tips for rare books:
- Start with large catalogs and bibliographies, such as WorldCat or the English Short Title Catalog
- Follow up with the catalogs of specific collections (might be online, printed as a book, on microfilm, etc.)
- Many—but by no means all—of Harvard’s rare books can be found in HOLLIS
Are there other sources of information about this collection?
Are there any guides to this or related collections? Are there guides to archives or rare books in this general topic area?
There are a great number of published books and online guides by librarians devoted to detailing archival resources for specific topics and sometimes specific collections. If there is a guide related to your topic, it can save you an enormous amount of legwork.
Your librarian can help you locate guides. To search on your own in a library catalog such as HOLLIS, try the following query
- (archives OR archival) AND (guides OR directories OR handbooks) AND [topic, e.g. "film," "military," "China"]
You will also find wikis and other platforms where scholars share tips and experiences with each other. These resources can help you determine whether the repository's stated policies and procedures match the reality on the ground. You might also find another researcher willing to share photos and notes. Examples include:
- "Fresh from the Archives" blog posts on Dissertation Reviews
- How cold is that library? crowdsourced Google Sheet
- AHA's Archives Wiki (on hiatus)
After your trip, make sure to contribute back to these resources so that your colleagues can benefit from what you learned!
Have the materials been microfilmed, digitized, or published?
Are any of the materials you’re interested in available in some surrogate form? Have they been digitized, microfilmed, or published (in facsimile or otherwise)?
Being able to scope out a collection on microfilm at your leisure can save you a great deal of time, and help you ensure that the precious hours you spend in a special collections reading room are focused on activities that really can’t be done virtually, whether it’s close attention to the material qualities of a document, using the physical layout of a collection to better contextualize what you’ve read in microfilm, or zeroing in on the materials that cannot be seen anywhere else.
Pro tip: are the materials you’re interested in handwritten? If so, you might want to try to find other, even if unrelated, images of the person’s handwriting to practice reading it.
Types of surrogates
- Look in the Finding Aid first: Finding Aids sometimes note microfilm (or digitized) copies
- Library catalogs such as WorldCat and HOLLIS are the best place to search, though note that microfilm can be tricky to find!
- format: can be inconsistent (sometimes just "book") In HOLLIS, look for form/genre "microform". In WorldCat, make sure you are using the "FirstSearch" interface, and look for the "format" menu under "Advanced Search."
- title: could be the name of your collection (Charles Sumner correspondence) or a much more generic title (manuscripts from the British Library)
- Some microfilm is commercially printed and widely distributed. Large microfilm collections are often accompanied by extensive indexes or guides—these are traditionally published as books, but they are increasingly available online. It’s well worth a Google search.
- Some microfilm is extremely rare: a repository might have microfilmed a collection in-house and made only two copies. It never hurts to try to obtain such rare microfilm via ILL. You can also contact the repository and ask them for suggestions.
- If you have identified a specific collection, it's usually best to start with the repository’s website (since repositories usually conduct or are at least involved in the digitization of their materials)
- Plan to search in different places in different ways: the organization and indexing of digitized material can be particularly haphazard
- Major portals include (a great source for digitized rare books, too!)
- See the Finding Primary Sources Online page on the Library Research Guide for History
- These are books; search for them in a catalog such as WorldCat or HOLLIS
For more detailed advice and resources, see the section on Online/Microfilm/Printed copies page in Fred and Anna's guide.
Is the collection open to research?
- Look into this early! You don’t want to arrive and find out you can’t look at something!
- Read the fine print on the repository website and catalog record or finding aid. Most finding aids include a section about access.
- Some examples of restrictions you might encounter:
- Need to obtain permission in advance from the archive and/or the subject of papers
- Set restrictions across an entire category of materials (e.g. 80 years for student papers, 50 years for institutional, or varying--sometimes indefinite--restrictions on medical archives)
- Materials have been temporarily moved to another location
- In some cases, you might not be able to see something at all.
- If you have any questions at all, confirm with the curators.
Are there grants you can apply for?
At Harvard, the Fellowships Office supports GSAS students.
Here’s some general advice from Cynthia Verba, former Director of Fellowships:
- Look broadly: many research fellowships would cover archival research as well as other forms such as field work, interviews, etc.
- Many libraries fund archival research specifically (typically using that library’s collection)
- A nice exception that specifies archival research in any library is funded by the Mellon Foundation (via the Council on Library and Information Resources)
- The Fellowships Office maintains the CARAT Database for Grants and Fellowships
- See the tips for finding fellowship support on the Fellowships Office home page
- See Cynthia Verba’s Scholarly Pursuits: A Guide to Professional Development during the Graduate Years for samples of winning proposals and lots of other helpful advice
- GSAS students are welcome to contact the GSAS Office directly for individual advising on your proposal draft
Much of the general advice above will be relevant for undergraduates as well. At Harvard, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships offers guidance specifically tailored for undergraduates.
What should you ask the on-site experts?
- There are no stupid questions.
- Informed questions and specific questions can be easier for archivists and curators to answer--the more they understand about your specific interests, the more they can bring their expertise to bear:
I see you have the papers of [specific figure/organization]. I’m particularly interested in [specific aspect of their work, e.g. “the dress code for meetings held by this and similar organizations”]. Can you recommend any additional collections, or do you have any search tips for [your online system]?
- Use the rest of this checklist to help shape your questions. At any point, either while you are looking for material, planning your visit, or are actually in the reading room, don’t hesitate to ask for help from an archivist or reading room attendant. That’s what we are here for, and it could save you frustration and time.
- Reminder: There are no stupid questions.
What else can you take advantage of while you're there?
How can you make the most of your trip?
Bring your credentials
It's a good idea to have a letter of introduction with you, in case you discover a new repository while you're there.
- GSAS students can obtain a formal letter from the Office of Student Affairs. (See GSAS's Traveling Scholars page.)
- Students in the College can contact the Harvard College Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships for help with setting up introductions through a Harvard faculty advisor and finding a host mentor.
What else does the repository hold?
One of the best ways to understand a collection is to explore the website of the library or repository that holds it. At Harvard, you can get to individual repository websites from the library's “Locations & Hours” page and the Harvard Museums page.
When looking at a repository website, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What division or more general collection or category does this collection belong to?
- Does that larger collection have a curator? Who is the contact for researchers?
- What else is in that larger collection?
- Is there any indication about how much (or how little) of this repository’s collections are described online? Are there search tips available?
Repository websites are not always user-friendly, but it is usually worth the effort to learn to navigate them. In cases where the repository website has only limited information, you might try looking for other people's description of the repository and its collections, for example on Wikipedia, in research guides, or in other scholars' writings.
Other collections in the same city or region
What are the visiting policies?
Can you register ahead of time? Is there an online request system? How far in advance should you request materials?
- Special collections research takes time. You need to exercise care in turning pages. You will likely be requesting just a few boxes at a time. Handwriting and unusual typesets take more time to read. Some collections close for lunch. Build in time for surprises—anything from “that folder is missing” to “I didn’t know this was here! I have so much more to explore!”
- This is a good moment to contact the repository to say: “I’d like to visit on x dates to consult y collection(s). I see from your website that I need to do p and q. Do I have that right? Do you have any additional recommendations for me as I prepare for my trip?”
- Online request systems can be very helpful. Harvard’s (aka Aeon) is called your “Special Collections Request Account”
What's the reading room etiquette?
What should you bring with you? How should you plan your research tasks?
It’s a great idea to research not only the material you want to look at (including relevant call numbers/shelf marks), but also the policies and procedures of the archive. Check the repository's website for information on what to bring and what to expect.
Different repositories have different rules, and rules change, so it’s important to double-check policies before every new visit. Below are questions to investigate plus answers that are fairly common across repositories.
What can you bring in? What can’t you?
- DO bring: laptop, tablet, phone/camera, pencils, eyeglasses.
- DON’T bring: coats, pens, notebooks, loose papers, cases of any kind (laptop, glasses, etc.), tripods, scanners, food or drink.
How should you handle materials?
- Wash your hands: it's always a good idea to wash your hands before you enter the reading room each time.
- Keep all materials on the desk, in order, and tidy.
- Ask for help, especially when moving or opening large or fragile items.
- Prepare yourself with our 10 Tips for Reading Room Success.
- When in doubt, ask. No one expects you to be a materials handling expert!
Can you take photographs? How many? What are the photocopying options?
- Policies may be specific to the individual collection
- Repositories can often create photocopies or digital scans for a fee
- Sometimes there’s a photocopying machine available: you may need to pack a roll of coins!
What’s your note-taking plan?
It can be difficult to strike the right balance between observing and reflecting on what’s in front of you, typing notes or transcriptions into your laptop, and taking pictures. Ideally, you want to engage in all three activities in a strategic, “planful” way—building in time to reflect on what you’ve seen so far and to reassess what you want to look at next.
What information should you keep track of for reference and citation purposes?
- Ask the archivist for advice!
- Box and folder numbers are a minimum
- Record as much as you can ahead of time (shelfmarks, box numbers, etc)
How are you going to keep that information integrated with your notes?
- Decide on a file-naming convention and stick to it
- E.g. LastNameorOrgName_CallNo_FolderNo_ImageNo
- (for Julia Child Papers): Child_MC660_1.1_001
What should you consider if you're taking photographs?
- Make sure they're permitted!
- Before you go:
- Figure out how to turn off sound and flash
- Practice photographing a couple of documents on a desk at home to test out the legibility of the images as well as any file-transfer systems you may have set up
- Make a plan for managing your images
- Minimum plan: file-naming convention (e.g. Collection_Callnumber_Box_Folder_Imageno: Child_MC660_1.1_001)
- Even better: use a scanning app (e.g. CamScanner, Genius Scan, Tiny Scan)
- For excellent, in depth advice on how to organize and maintain your notes and images, see the guide to Zotero for Archival Research
How should you store your notes/data/images?
Consider the level of confidentiality of the information you're storing!
- Many Harvard affiliates have 1TB of storage space on Microsoft OneDrive
- Tropy is a free, open source software tool for storing and organizing photos for research
Advice on Getting Started
"I have the first box in front of me—now what?"
Advice from Harvard researcher Zachary Nowak:
There are a lot of ways to approach this but I would recommend the following system. Think about your tentative argument: think about what kinds of things would support it. Now open the first box, get the first folder, and start flipping through it. Jot down notes on a sheet of paper about anything that supports your argument but also anything that makes you laugh or scratch your head. These notes can be very brief—you don’t have to transcribe whole quotes—but should be keyed to the organization of the collection. For example “Series I, A, Box 1, folder 3: funny drawing of a sunflower.”
Rather than try to look closely at everything, go through the whole first box pretty quickly, just jotting down a few notes here and there. This first time is to get a feel for the collection. If there are lots of newsletters, is there a certain column— “From Under The Sunflower —that might be relevant? The goal here is not to write everything down, it’s just to get an initial feel for the collection. But certain things might jump out at you. I went in to my research on the FGS [Fenway Garden Society] looking for info on the gardeners’ social class but found a ton of references to the tall reeds that line the river by the gardens. I noticed these as I did my initial pass through. Looking for things that disprove your argument is also not a bad idea.
What are the permissions and citation guidelines?
If you want to quote or other reproduce material from archives, even (or especially) unpublished material, you need to consider copyright.
For anything you anticipate wanting to quote or reproduce:
- Can you make a case for fair use?
- Make sure you know the citation guidelines. Many repositories provide a citation format for their materials, to help make sure you include the information another scholar would need to locate the same document. Look for these (and ask if you can’t find them) BEFORE you go, so you know what information to include in your notes.
When you need to obtain permission:
- Find the rights holder
- Who is the rights holder? A person, an organization, the archive?
- Even if the repository doesn’t hold the rights, ask if they have contact info for the rightsholder, general guidance, or can help you identify other scholars who have received permission to use the material in the past
- UT Austin’s WATCH file can also help locate rightsholders
- Is the work published or unpublished? (Different copyright terms and practices apply.)
- Is this work in the public domain or is the underlying data you need available from a public domain source?
- Who is the rights holder? A person, an organization, the archive?
- Allow plenty of time
- Some rights holders are more responsive then others; you may also need extra time to negotiate terms.
- Many larger institutional rights holders will have established licensing policies.
- Ask your librarian or local office of scholarly communication for guidance on how to phrase your request. You may even consider drafting your own short licensing agreement or letter agreement to present to rights holders (be sure to ask for a reasonable bundle of rights).
For full guidance, see the Society of American Archivists’ excellent FAQ on copyright and unpublished material. You can also contact a Harvard Copyright First Responder for specific help on your materials.
The contents of this checklist were compiled by Odile Harter from materials developed by Anna Assogba, Fred Burchsted, James Capobianco, Emilie Hardman, Amanda Strauss, Hugh Truslow, Cynthia Verba, and Alan Clarke, with help from many Harvard colleagues.