Locating archival material (primary sources) for your research
There are numerous ways of discovering useful primary source material. We hope you find these four suggestions a useful starting point for your research project.
1) Consult secondary works (like books) about your topic. If the author used primary source materials, they will be included in the bibliography and the footnotes. This method will give you an idea of the scope of primary sources available. Additionally, it is perfectly legitimate to utilize an archival collection already used by another scholar. It is even possible that the contents of a repository used by previous scholars have changed. Archives tend to build their collections around particular subjects, so it is possible that an archive has received new collections that might be relevant to your project.
2) Search the Internet. The Internet is an excellent tool for uncovering leads to primary source material. Many archives have websites that include summaries and guides to their collections. Searching for archival material on the Internet can be tricky; remember that most historical archives might not appear in the first pages of your search results. Try adding "archives" to your search terms. If you're using Google, you can limit your search to college and university pages by going to the advanced search and addding ".edu" to the "Search within a site or domain" field.
3) Search online databases. Many archives are now cataloging their collections in WorldCat, where searches can be limited to “Archival Material.” The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which allows you to search the contents of a large number of archival repositories, is also available online. Examples of other electronic databases with information and, in some cases, digital versions of archival material include the Library of Congress: American Memory Project. Check the library's alphabetical list of electronic databases or ask a reference librarian for help finding databases. Note that no current online database includes a comprehensive list of all archival materials. One drawback to searching the Internet and online databases is that you might find a collection that you cannot use because of geographical limitations. What if a collection that you think would be perfect for your project is located in an archives 3000 miles away? Only a limited amount of primary source material has been microfilmed, published, or digitized for wide distribution. To access archival materials, you normally must physically go to the original materials as most material in an archive is one of a kind and does not circulate like books in a library. With that in mind, think locally if you plan on utilizing primary sources, but do not have the resources to travel.
4) Ask the right people. Talk with scholars who have written in your subject area. Most scholars have inside knowledge of sources in their particular area of expertise. Archivists are also a means to finding leads. Many archivists not only will have knowledge of their own collection but also should have a general knowledge of the holdings in other area archives. If the contents of their own collection will not be helpful, they might know other archivists for you to contact. For information about or assistance in locating archival materials, please contact the Drexel University archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-895-1757.
--Written by Kevin Martin, revised 2009 by Rob Sieczkiewicz