Introduction to Unpublished Primary Sources

Manuscripts, letters, diaries and other personal records that have not been published will only be available through an archive or special collection library.  It will be difficult to include these materials in a one-semester project unless they are local or found in a digital archive. If you need to travel for a capstone or thesis project be sure to apply for grant funding.

Locating Special Collections and Archives

  • Consult a general directory such as Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Ref Z731 .D56)  or Directory of Archival and Historical Document Collections Available for Public Use in the North Country (Ref CD3409.N75 N864; copies in Circulating Collection, Ready Reference and Special Collections).
  • Search in WorldCat, limiting the search for your subject to archival material.
  • Consult bibliographies in secondary sources, or directories covering specific subjects.
  • Contact historical societies and libraries in a geographic area that is related to your interest.
  • Visit Repositories of Primary Sources.  Or use an internet  search engine, combining ‘archive’ or ‘special collection’ with terms related to your topic.

Tips On Using Archives And Special Collections Libraries

  • Call or write ahead. Many places have limited staff and hours, so check to see if appointments are required or if there are walk-in hours available. Also, many collections will have restrictions on who can use particular materials.
  • Communicate to the staff ahead of time your research interest and what materials you want to use. It also helps to tell them what you have done and found so far to maximize your visit.
  • You will not be allowed to retrieve from or browse the shelves, so call ahead concerning materials of interest to you.
  • Be prepared to write with only pencils when working from original documents. Also keep your hands washed, and be prepared to wear light cotton gloves when handling delicate materials. You may be asked to check personal items at the door, and only allowed pencils and notebooks or loose-leaf paper in the reading room. Food and drink should be left outside of the research space.
  • Special lighting and heat/humidity standards are observed to avoid deterioration of materials. The temperature is likely to be kept on the cool side of comfortable room temperature, and the humidity higher than in an average home.
  • Listen carefully to any special instructions provided for handling specific materials. You may be asked to use special racks to view large formats, or to use small sandbags to keep volumes open to the page.
  • You should expect to pay more than usual for copies or photographs of materials. This is usually not on a self-service basis, since special equipment and specially trained staff will be employed to protect the materials. Archives may allow digital photography for personal or research purposes.

Archives & Special Collections