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Finding Archives and Manuscripts

Provides an overview of strategies for locating primary sources, including archival and manuscript material.

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Sigrid Anderson
The University of Michigan

209 Hatcher Graduate Library, North

913 S. University

Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190

Organizing Digital Files and Photos from Your Trip to an Archive

Here's a useful guide to managing the digital files and photos that you collect on your travels (courtesy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library):

Using Digital Tools for Archival Research

Archives Resources

The following materials are examples of archives directories owned by U-M Library.

Strategies for Getting Started

Give yourself plenty of time both to set up your visit to a library and for the research itself.

Locating Materials and Collections:

  • Talk to scholars working in your area of research, as well as librarians.  A list of subject specialists at U-M Library can be found here.
  • Mine endnotes, footnotes, and bibliographies.  Have other scholars worked on this subject?  Even if they're looking at the subject from a completely different angle, other scholars' bibliographies (including dissertations) can be a rich resource for locating obscure archives.
  • Consider the logical places that papers relating to a person or event might be.  Where did the person live?  Where did the event take place?  Check with the local public, academic, and private libraries in that area, as well as local historical societies, to see if they have relevant materials.  If you're lucky it will turn out that the person's papers are housed there; even if they're not, librarians, historians, or curators working in that city might know other local resources that you might try.
  • Identify the people and committees that worked on your topic.  If you're working on an event, organization, or project, find out who was associated with it.  Maybe that person's papers will have documents related to your topic.  Or, if it's a government project, try to figure out the name of the committee that was in charge.  Often, you can search in WorldCat for that committee as an author.
  • Check databases that list archival resources, such as WorldCat, Archive Grid, and Archive Finder.
  • Use print bibliographies in addition to electronic sources: To find print bibliographies use Library Catalog Search, enter your topic, and use the following subject terms: indexes, bibliography, sources, archives, catalogs.  To maximize your search results, you can search for all of these terms using an OR (in caps) between each one.
  • Check a library’s website to see if there is a separate page or search engine for archival or manuscript materials.  Not all manuscript material may be listed in a library’s main catalog, but it may be described in a separate finding aid or manuscript database.


Once you've identified a collection or library that is relevant:

  • Look for a finding aid.  Finding aids are guides that list what is in a collection.  Sometimes, finding aids are very detailed and available online; sometimes they're not.  If you're interested in a collection, and you can't locate a finding aid online, contact the repository to see if they can make a copy available for you, either electronically or in print.  
  • Talk to librarians.  Librarians are a great resource for finding out what's in a collection, whether there is information about it in the catalog or not.  Sometimes a collection is unprocessed, so the only people who know about it are the librarians working behind the scenes.
  • Call or write in advance of your visit to make sure that the material you're interested in is available.  
  • If you can't make the trip, see if the library will make copies of the individual items for you.  Libraries usualy charge a fee for this.
  • Check to see if the material is available on microfilm or online.