Using Archives: A Guide For Researchers

Step 1 - What is an Archive?
Step 2 - Planning Your Research
Step 3 - Contacting the Archive
Step 4 - Visiting the Archive
               Rules and Regulations
Step 5 - Completing Your Visit

Step 1 - What is an Archive?

An archive is a repository for unique records of enduring value. Records housed in archives are often one of a kind or at least are very difficult to replace if lost, stolen, or destroyed. It is not necessarily the age of the records that give them their value; rather, it is the content and research potential of the documents that warrant their preservation in an archive. Archives are designed to provide users with access to the records while maintaining a stable environment for their protection.

Records are often kept in collections which are a grouping of related material that are most often created by a single individual or organization. Documents from two or more collections on similar subjects are never mixed and the original order the collection arrived in is maintained in most circumstances. Collections can range in size from a single sheet of paper to thousands of feet of material. The media and formats of the records vary as well. information can be stored on paper, magnetic tape, CD Rom, photographs, videotape, sketches, maps, and architectural drawings. Thus, a visit to an archive can prove to be a multifaceted experience.

Step 2 - Planning Your Research

As many archives do not loan their materials and do not have extended hours past 5 o'clock, the time a researcher needs to locate and study records can be constrained. Thus, it is beneficial to know the most about your subject before you enter an archive. Through the use of secondary sources such as books, encyclopedias and journal articles, a wider knowledge and greater focus on the subject can be attained. Key information such as names, places, dates and events can serve as appropriate leads in archival collections. With this background, you can enter an archive with specific questions and details that will help the archivist find the records you need without using up your precious time. An archivist may also be able to direct you to other materials related to your topic that you may not be aware of if they are provided with enough information.

There are literally thousands of archives in North America that are maintained by a number of unique organizations such as federal, state/county and municipal governments, churches, businesses, historical associations, universities, and military branches. Hence, knowing where to begin your search for records may seem daunting. There are ways, however, that can help you find the suitable archives for your research. While you conduct your background research from secondary sources, make note of where the authors found their information. Often footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies, and the narrative itself will refer to the archives and collections used. Talking with colleagues, professors, and others who are knowledgeable in your topic may help. As well, there are published guides and directories that are available at many libraries, if not directly, at least by inter-library loan. And finally, more and more archives are creating web pages that give details to their holdings. Some even have online finding aids to their collections that can be browsed by electronic searches.

Step 3 - Contacting the Archive

It is wise to contact an archive before making your first visit. Some archives are open to the public only at specific times and days and some collections are restricted from the public without written permission from the owner of the records or the archive/organization. Contacting the archive will save you time in the long run and will give you an opportunity to find out if the archive can realistically help your research or give you an estimate of how long your research will take.

Sometimes the archival repository with the materials you require may be a far distance from where you live making a visit problematic. To avoid long and expensive traveling, you may contact the archive and inquire about three options. First, some archives make their most frequently used materials available as on microfilm which can be sent to a closer library or archive on request. Second, many archives will conduct a limited amount of research on your behalf and sometimes at an hourly fee. When taking this option, be sure that you know what you are looking for and be as specific as possible. An undefined search may cause the archivist to view the search as too lengthy to perform as they will be taken away from their other duties. If these options are not feasible and the distance is too great, the archive should be able to provide you with a list of professional researchers that work in the area, which is the third option.

To find out about these options or to make a request, contact the archive by typed letter, telephone, or e-mail. Most archivists prefer requests in writing, as letters and e-mail tend to display information in a clearer manner which lessens the need to contact the researcher on numerous occasions. Reserve telephone messages for simple reference questions and inquiries about the archive's holdings. When you write, be sure to describe your request as succinctly as you can including names, dates, places, and specific documents. Please allow at least four to six week for a reply from the archives.

Step 4 - Visiting the Archive

This next section deals specifically with the procedures at the UTSA Special Collections.


Upon entering the Reading Room, you will be asked to fill out a Researcher Registration Form (PDF format; 30 KB) which will ask for your name and address, the title of the collection desired and a picture ID so that we can photocopy it. This document ensures that researchers are familiar with the archives policies on copyright, restrictions, and photocopying.

Rules and Regulations

Patrons will be asked to read and sign the following rules governing the Reading Rooms of Special Collections:

  1. The first time any researcher visits the Archives or Special Collections s/he must complete the Researcher Registration Form (PDF format; 30 KB) and show appropriate identification. On each subsequent visit the researcher will be asked to read through the rules.
  2. Visitors must sign the registration book each time they visit the Reading Room.
  3. ALL personal belongings are to be stored in lockers.
  4. Allowed in Reading Room:
    1. Pencils
    2. Paper, must be stamped by a staff member
    3. Laptop and notebooks, will be inspected
    4. Digital camera (no flash), must sign user agreement
  5. Not allowed in Reading Room:
    1. Pens, markers or ink of any kind
    2. Food, drink, candy (including chewing gum) and tobacco products
  6. Researchers are to remain reasonably quiet to avoid distracting others.
  7. Cell phone ringers must be set to silent. Calls may not be taken in the reading room.
  8. Access to stacks areas of Special Collections is not allowed.
  9. Notify a staff member when your visit ends. Present laptops and notebooks for inspection. Special Collections staff reserve the right to inspect all research materials and personal articles before a researcher leaves.
  10. Failure to follow these rules may lead to your removal and/or banning from the Special Collections reading rooms.

Patrons will be asked to read and sign the following rules governing the use of Special Collections Materials:

  1. Archival materials may only be consulted in the Reading Room under the supervision of Archives staff. Archival material may not be removed from the Archives.
  2. Researchers may request up to 3 boxes of material at a time. Only one box may be on the study table at a time. Only one folder may be removed from a box at a time. Use orange Out Cards to mark your place when removing folders from boxes.
  3. Keep material in the order in which you receive it even if you cannot discern a meaningful order. Use orange Out Cards to mark your place when removing items from folders.
  4. Archival materials must remain in clear view of Archives staff at all times.
  5. Cotton gloves must be worn when handling photographic materials. Gloves will be provided. Please avoid touching the surface of photographic materials, even while wearing gloves.
  6. Do not mark, fold or use post-it notes on materials. Respect the fragile nature of archival materials and handle with care. Archival materials must remain flat on the table.
  7. Do not exert pressure on material used, such as by taking notes on top of or resting an arm on archival material.
  8. Book cradles will be provided for the viewing of bound materials.
  9. Proper credit must be given in citations.
    1. Archival citations: see “preferred citation” for each collection (ex. [Identification of item], MS ##, Collection Name, Special Collections, University of Texas at San Antonio Library).
    2. Special Collections citations: Proper credit must be given for original (non-published) material. Sample citation: Special Collections, University of Texas at San Antonio Library. Published books need not cite UTSA Library. If unsure, consult staff.
  10. Photocopy Requests:
    1. Complete a photocopy request form. Not all materials can be photocopied, due to physical conditions or restrictions.
    2. Consult staff for additional information about photocopies.
    3. Use purple flags to mark material for photocopying. Do not separate material to be photocopied.
    4. Photocopies are not done one demand. Turnaround may take several business days, depending on the quantity ordered and the volume of orders.
  11. If you find materials that are torn, marked, out of order, or in any way seem damaged, please notify a staff member immediately.
  12. All materials must be returned to a staff member before leaving the Archives for more than 15 minutes.

Failure to comply with these rules may result in denial of access to the collections. Theft or mutilation of the holdings is a crime that may be prosecuted.

Step 5 - Completing Your Visit

When you are finished with you materials or are ready to leave, it is wise to make note of any information that will be of use during future visits. Return folders to their appropriate boxes and either leave the materials at the table or give them to a staff member. Be sure to let the staff know that you are leaving the archive. 

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