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Primary Sources: Planning a Research Trip

This guide is an introduction to primary sources research.

About Research Trips

Primary research material abounds in archives, libraries and other institutions all over the world.  Because such material is generally irreplaceable, few institutions will loan their collections so researchers must be prepared to travel to the sources essential to their projects.  This guide is intended to offer suggestions on planning a research trip to an archives or primary resource repository.

Planning a Research Trip

Do Your Homework

Before starting a primary source research project, you should first read up on your topic using secondary sources.  Consult books and articles previously written on your topic to gain a familiarity with your subject.  Note important dates related to your topic since this may help you identify – or eliminate – some primary source collections.  Try to narrow the focus of your research since broad topics may prove difficult to research thoroughly in a single visit.

Locating Material

While reviewing secondary resource material on your topic, browse author bibliographies to identify primary resources consulted in preparation of the paper or book. 

Search WorldCat, OCLC’s global catalog of library collections, for material related to your topic.  Don’t forget to check online for collections related to your topic.  Use subject keywords or personal names combined with “Papers,” “Manuscripts,” or “Collections” to find mentions of your subject on library and archive web sites. 

Finally, ask a local archivist or librarian for advice on locating archives with source material on your topic.  Once you have identified archives with collections of interest, contact the archives about your topic and ask for assistance in locating local material which may not be listed in catalogs or on web sites.

Planning Your Trip

Once you’re ready to make your research trip, take some time to find out about access and use policies at the institutions you plan to visit.  Some of the questions you need to ask may include the following:

  • Is the archive open to the general public?  Do you need to provide a letter of reference from your home institution?   Do you need to bring photo ID?  If you need to register as a researcher, can you register ahead of your visit to maximize your available research time?
  • Where is the archive located?  Is there parking available?  If so, is it free or do you have to pay?  Is the archive located near public transportation stops?  
  • Are there hotel accommodations near the archive?  What dining options are available?
  • Are children allowed in the research areas?  If not, are there nearby facilities for childcare?
  • Is adaptive technology available for people with physical disabilities?  If not, can you bring your own adaptive technology devices?
  • Are storage lockers available for personal items, such as purses or briefcases?  If so, are they free or do you have a pay for their use?
  • Is the material you need available on-site?  Or will it have to be ordered from an off-site facility?  If off-site, how far in advance do you need to request the material?
  • Will the archive be open on the dates of your visit?  Is it open on national holidays?  Are there renovations planned which might interfere with the availability of the material you need?
  • Are finding aids and/or research guides to the collections available online?  If only available in paper-based format, can you order a copy to review before your visit?
  • Are there any unprocessed collections relating to your topic?  Can these be made available during your visit?
  • Are there any restrictions – by the donor or by the use policy of the archive – on access to collections relating to your topic?  If so, can you apply for an exception to the restriction?
  • Is anyone available to conduct some preliminary research before your arrival?  If not, are there local historical or genealogical societies who maintain lists of researchers-for-hire?
  • Are there other archives or repositories in the area which may have material on your topic? 

Using the Archives

Since some items may be too fragile for copying, be sure to plan suitable time for on-site research.   Questions related to physical use of the archives may include:

  • Can you schedule a meeting with an archivist or librarian to discuss your research? 
  • What is the archive’s reproduction policy?  Is photocopying permitted?  Are there limitations on photocopying?  
  • Are laptop computers allowed?  Can you use a digital camera or other recording device in the archive?
  • Are there copyright restrictions on your reuse of the material?  If you want to publish – in print or online – something you find in the archive, can copyright permission be obtained?  Will you have to pay licensing fees?
  • Keep track of resources you use in case you need to cite them.  It may be impossible for archivists to locate a specific letter or article later.

Public Services Archivist

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Teresa Gray
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Special Collections & University Archives