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Women's History Research in Archives : Visiting an Archive

How to research women's history in archival sources

Before You Visit


Read published secondary source materials available on your topic to prepare and get the most out of your archival research.


Archival Reference Staff can provide vital advice that will save you time and help your research be more successful! Not only do they gain familiarity with collections over time but they also know about local resources such as finding aids only available in paper format, in-house databases, or topical research guides.

Use contact info from the archive's website to get in touch via phone or email.

For advice tailored to your research, when contacting an archive explain:

  • Purpose and scope of your research
  • Research you have already done
  • The kind of materials you are hoping to find

What to Expect on a Visit


Archives usually have limited hours and you cannot check out materials. Plan your visit so you will have enough research time. Check how large a collection or portion of a collection you plan to look at is. One folder will be relatively quick but multiple boxes will take some time.


Because archival materials are unique and cannot be replaced, archives have heightened security. Bags and coats will typically need to go in lockers located nearby. Ask at the desk.


Pens are usually not allowed in order to protect materials. Bring pencils.


To guard against theft and understand their user groups, archives usually require patrons to sign in.


Unlike most libraries, archives are not set up for browsing. Instead, materials are kept in climate-controlled conditions to preserve them and are not arranged by subject. Work with reference staff, the catalog and finding aids to identify materials you would like to look at. Use the name of the creator, catalog reference numbers, box and location numbers to fill out a form to retrieve materials. Paging may only happen at intervals and usually has a cutoff half an hour before the archive closes.


You will be able to look at one box at a time although more boxes may be retrieved at once and sit aside for individual use. Look in folders one at a time so materials stay in order. If the folders are not numbered, use a scrap piece of paper as a flag to mark the folder location in the box. Keep the papers in the same order in each folder. Be gentle and do not work on top of papers. White cotton gloves will usually be available for handling photographs and negatives.


Since you cannot check out items, making copies is often helpful for in-depth research. Every archive has its own policies about photocopies, taking pictures, and e-copies. Some archives may only allow staff to make copies. There may be a fee for photographing records. Some places offer on demand digitization. Ask the reference staff about copy and photo policies.