Before You Start: Guide to Using Special Collections & Archival Materials

It helps to come to Special Collections & Archives with a topic or research question in mind. Discuss your research with Library staff throughout your project.  They are familiar with the collections and may be able to help you to refine your research topic or offer suggestions for search strategy.


Getting started: background research and forming a research question

  • Use published sources and trusted web sites to collect background information on your topic.
    • Read citations, bibliographies and footnotes, looking for references to archival or special collections.
    • Look for information on important people, dates, groups and events related to your topic.
    • Familiarize yourself with key terms and concepts for the time period and topic you are researching.
    • Review online inventories for collections (finding aids) to find sources that fit your topic.
    • Finding aids have biographies, histories, and other information that will help you understand the records you are using. Consult these before you look at the records.

Making the most of your research time

  • Call ahead to make sure that the collection you are interested in is available. Some of our collections are stored off-site and need to be retrieved.
  • Research in Special Collections & Archives usually takes more time than online or regular library research. The amount of time needed will vary depending on the scope of your project.
  • You may need to look through a large amount of material to find information or piece together evidence from different sources.
  • The materials are not always arranged in an order that is easy to use.
  • Some documents are handwritten, faded, or fragile. Using these types of document may take longer than expected.
  • Materials in Special Collections & Archives may only be used in the Hipp Reading Room. They cannot be checked out or retrieved using ILL or Document Delivery.


Can I see actual documents online?

In some cases, yes, but most documents in the Special Collections & Archives are not online at this time.


What is a finding aid and why should I use it?

A finding aid is like an inventory for a group of archival records, personal papers, or manuscripts. It is a tool to help researchers determine if the materials relate to their research, find where sources are located, and understand and interpret the materials they are using. A finding aid may be a brief summary or a detailed description and inventory. It contains information on:

  • The amount and types of material available
  • Dates of the records
  • Selected topics covered by the records
  • Who created the materials
  • How the materials are organized
  • The history or biography of the creator of the records


How to find sources in the Special Collections & Archives

Manuscripts finding aids and University Archives Series list

    • Not all finding aids are online. If you don’t find what you are looking for, contact the Special Collections & Archives staff. They may have more information about materials that are not described online.
    • Search tip: You may have to try more than one search to find what you need. If you do not get any results, try other terms, use more general or more specific terms, or try terms that were used in the era you are researching. Staff may be able to suggest search terms for your topic.

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