Using Archival Collections

Tips For Conducting Research In Archival Collections

Identify your topic
Identify your topic as clearly as possible, including subject, range of dates, key names/places/events, and regional limiters. Try not to be too vague (“What do you have about women?”) or too specific (“I’m looking for letters written by Fulton county women in 1903 that discuss quilting techniques.”). Consulting with a staff member of the Special Collections and Archives can help you find a more appropriate topic to research or point you toward collections you might not have considered.

Conduct secondary research first
Read up on your topic before attempting primary research. Familiarity with secondary sources (books, articles, documentaries, etc.) will make time spent seeking and using primary sources more profitable, and citations from secondary sources can help lead you to relevant primary materials.

Where are the primary resources?
Spend some time identifying additional institutions, people or organizations that have relevant primary resources. Guides to archival collections can help with this task. Increasingly, information about manuscripts and archives can be located through online catalog searches, and many institutions have made their holdings accessible electronically. However, don’t expect to find everything online. Also, don’t expect every institution to have materials on every topic.

Call before you go
Contact the archives you wish to visit before dropping in, especially if the archives is located out of town. Calling ahead can help confirm whether the repository holds materials in which you are interested and provides an opportunity to explore other resources of which you may not be aware. It also allows you to verify hours of operation, restrictions on the collection, and the archives’ policies on access, copying, retrieval of materials from off-site storage, fees, etc.

Visiting our collections
Georgia State University students, faculty and staff have access to Special Collections and Archives during normal operating hours. A form of photo ID needs to be presented to the on duty archivist upon registering for research at the Special Collections and Archives reference desk.

Guests with a need to use the Special Collections and Archives are required to register with the security station at the Library North entrance to gain admittance. These guests are required to present some form of acceptable photo ID at the security guard station upon entering the Library. Guests ID’s will be held at the security station while they are in the Library. Additionally, another form of photo ID needs to be presented to the on duty archivist upon registering for research at the Special Collections and Archives reference desk.

Plan to spend more than 30 minutes
Allow plenty of time for examining the materials; don’t wait until the last minute to make your request. Working with primary resources is somewhat like working on a puzzle, examining individual pieces of information that may or may not fit together. Such materials are not always easily understood, and time pressures can make them seem even more obscure.

Be aware that it takes time to listen to oral history interviews, watch videos, etc. Additionally, many materials will be handwritten and may require some deciphering.

Guidelines for using our collections onsite

  • All materials do not circulate and are used only in the reading room.
  • Materials stored offsite may require up to five working days for retrieval.
  • Because the items held in Special Collection and Archives are one-of-a-kind or rare materials, you will be asked to take notes only in pencil or with your laptop computer.
  • If you are using original photos, you will be provided with a pair of gloves to keep the oils in your fingers from damaging the photographs.
  • Researchers will use only one box of materials at a time, and will be careful to maintain the sequence of the documents within the folder.
  • Extraneous materials such as purses and backpacks will be stored in a locker within the reading room.

Duplication of materials
For a fee Special Collections and Archives provides photocopying and audio-visual reproduction. Please reference our Duplication Services page for more information. Personal cameras are allowed in accordance with our accordance with our Camera Use Policy. Personal scanners are not allowed.

Expect copyright issues and other restrictions
Be prepared to deal with copyright and use issues that may arise. These are particularly common with regard to 20th century materials, most of which are of an age to still be protected by U.S. copyright law. In some archives, you may be allowed to view materials, but not make copies. Other institutions require you to present letters of introduction or have certain scholarly credentials before you will be allowed to do research.

This is your project
Expect to do some of the “digging” yourself, rather than rely exclusively on the Special Collections and Archives staff. Don’t expect the archivist to do your research for you. Although some institutions have prepared research guides that will lead you to appropriate collections, they may not tell you exactly where to look. Also, similar information may be spread over several collections, so you may need to look in additional boxes.