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Introduction to Archival Research

An introductory overview of archival research at the Kellen Design Archives and other archives.

A Word of Encouragement

Don't be intimidated about conducting archival research, especially if it is your first time. Every scholar, historian, and academic had to start somewhere. Each time you visit an archives, you will be adding more experience to your research knowledge and gain more confidence. This will be a great asset to you throughout your career, whether it's in academia or in industry.

Will you make me wear gloves?

Some archives will make you wear white cotton gloves. Some don't. It depends on local practices and on the types of materials you are handling.

At the New School Archives, we won't generally ask you to wear gloves, but there are always exceptions. We try to protect our materials in ways that allow you to handle them without directly touching sensitive surfaces. The collections are here for your use. We're here for you to do research.

Basic Tips

  • Plan ahead. Archives often store collections offsite and require some time to have them delivered for you. That's why it is always best to call or e-mail with advance notice. For tips on contacting an archives, Purdue University's OWL guide to archives offers sample e-mails that you can modify for your own use. Also, you may need to make several return visits to examine materials. Consider the amount of material you plan to examine and leave extra time just in case. Finally, some archives have limits on the number of people conducting research at a given time.
  • Bring your laptop. Many archives can accommodate your laptop and it will make taking notes (SEE BELOW) much easier. Archives will not allow you to use pens in reading rooms (the area where researchers examine archival materials). You will also be asked to store your belongings in a locker or an area away from the reading room.
  • If you request copies or scans, be prepared to wait. Because archival materials are unique, you will not be able to make copies or scans yourself like you can in a library. A trained archives staff member will make all reproductions and, as in a library, you will be required to pay for these copies and scans. It may take several days or more to receive your copies/scans, especially if the materials are large. This is why it is important to learn and practice good note-taking skills.
  • Bring your digital camera -- but ask permission first. Many archives (including the New School Archives) will allow you to bring a camera with you into the reading room. This is a great way to save time because instead of waiting for the archives staff to make copies or scans for you, you can do it yourself. However, you will have to follow the rules about camera usage and what can be done with the images after you take them. Some archives will ask you to sign an agreement if you use your camera.
  • Learn to take notes well. You cannot "check out" materials from archives; they are unique materials that may exist nowhere else in the world. If you ask for a lot of copies, research becomes costly and time is wasted. If you are a New School student and you want to brush up on your note taking skills, the University Learning Center (formerly the Writing Center) is here to help.
  • Bring a sweater. Archives are kept at cool temperatures to help ensure the longevity of materials and to protect fragile documents from mold and insects.
  • The most important tip of all: Don't be afraid to ask!