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Visiting Repositories

What to expect

When you arrive, a receptionist or reference archivist will greet you. You'll probably be asked to sign in, show a picture I.D., and complete a registration form (at least on your first visit).

It's important to realize that archival and manuscript materials are unique, sometimes valuable, and often fragile. Therefore, most repositories have extra security measures and a number of special rules, for example:

  • You will probably be asked to put away your coat, purse, and other belongings that you don't need for research before entering the research area. Lockers and coat racks are usually provided.

  • Food and drink are never allowed in the research area.

  • You will be asked to use only a pencil, not a pen, to take notes (to avoid accidental ink marks on archival materials). Most archives will allow you to use a laptop computer.

  • You will be required to handle the materials with care and maintain them in the order in which you receive them.

  • Gloves may be provided to wear when you handle photographs.

A reference archivist will conduct a reference interview with you, so that he or she can understand your topic and guide you to appropriate sources. You'll also have the opportunity to browse finding aids and other resources.

Archivist Susan Dayall, Hampshire College
Archivist Susan Dayall retrieving a document box from the stacks at the Hampshire College Archives.

Once you've identified the materials you want in the finding aids, you will complete a request form and the archivist will retrieve them for you. Depending on your topic, you may have to go through a lot of materials to find a few items relevant to your topic. Or there may be so much material that you'll want to narrow the scope of your research topic. Remember that some documents may be handwritten and difficult to read (see samples of primary sources), so allow extra time if you know you'll be viewing handwritten materials.


Plan to spend quite a bit of time reading in the repository because you will not necessarily be able to photocopy everything and take it home. Photocopying may not always be available, or may be limited due to staff time, fragility of documents or copyright considerations. Most repositories will charge you for photocopies and copying will be done by the staff for the protection of the materials. Therefore, you may have to pick up your copies at a later date or have them mailed to you. For more information, you can usually find a repository's photocopying policies on their Web site before you visit.

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Project funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Last update: May 24, 2004