Using Archives for Research

What are archives?

The term archives has multiple meanings:

1. Archives can be a collection of information created by a person or organization to document their work that is deemed to have permanent value.
2. Archives can be the organization that cares for those collections.
3. Archives can be the physical location where the collections are stored.

Format is not important as any format can be archival. Archives generally contain unique materials.

The usage of the computer world for "archive" does not provide permanent storage, mostly it entails offline storage.

Start with a research question

You will be looking at primary sources.

Primary sources have little bits of data spread across a lot of information. You get to choose the question that interests you and see how the data relates to your research question.

Finding Aids

Finding aids are documents that archivists use to describe collections.

Parts can include:
Creator of the records
Size of the collection
Access limitations (if any)
Scope and content of the collection (what it covers)
History of the agency or biography of the creator
Subject search terms
Box, folder or item list

Sample finding aids:
Guide to the Pyramid Mall Protests Collection
Guide to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park Collection

Finding aids reflect the expertise, interests and skills of the archivist who created them. The research interests of the era also affect the content of the finding aid. Sometimes you will be interested in content the original processor didn't think worth mentioning.

Many repositories have not yet put all of their finding aids online. Most have put some online. If you find a repository with a few collections that interest you, ask if they have more that are similar.

The archivist, reference archivist, reference librarian in an archives is still the best finding aid. Share your research question with them directly so that they can help you find the most relevant information.

Sources for archival collections

Collections of Finding Aids

New York:
Empire Archival Discovery Cooperative

Online Archive of California


What to do when you get there

If you find that you must travel to an archives for research, here's what you can expect:

  • Most but not all archives require you to register with some form of ID.
Pay attention to policies
  • Many archives require you to store your belongings in lockers outside the archives. Most have rules about photos or other copies. Most require pencil only. Some allow laptops, some do not.
Reference interview
  • Even if you have an appointment and know which records you want to look at, the archivist will likely conduct a quick interview. This is an opportunity to for you both to find out what other records might work for your research question.

Treat the items carefully.
  • Use gloves if instructed to. Maintain items in the order in which you find them.

Be a Citizen Archivist

A number of repositories are crowd sourcing transcription of digitized documents:

National Archives
Smithsonian Digital Volunteers
The Ithacan

Each of these sites will require an account specific to that site.

Contact Us

picture of Bridget Bower
College Archivist
(607) 274-3096

Anthropology at IC

Unionization at IC
Chet Galeska, one of the speakers was a professor in the Anthropology Department

Joel Savishinsky on the Anthropology Department when he arrived during his oral history interview

Search Argos

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