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Theatre at Northwestern University: Using archival material

A guide to resources in the Northwestern University Archives that document Northwestern's rich history in theatre teaching and performance.

What's an Archives? How does it differ from a Library?

NU Archives

  • Materials are non-circulating—you use them in the Reading Room
  • You do not browse the stacks—you request  materials
  • Materials are mostly not books, so they are catalogued differently from regular Library items

 

What is a finding aid?

Because archival and manuscript materials are different from books and periodicals (see Using Archival Materials), specialized methods have been developed to act the way an index or table of contents would in a book.

The key to locating items in these collections is through a “finding aid.”

As the name implies, the finding aid helps researchers find relevant collections, and then identify the specific materials they need within the collection.

Each finding aid provides information about the creation and historical context of a collection, explains how it is organized, and outlines its contents, so that you can identify and request the materials relevant to your research.

You will need to come to the University Archives to view the actual collections, since they collections do not circulate and in most cases their contents are not digitized.

Most finding aids provide the following information:

  • Biographical or historical information about the subject of the collection
  • Description of the scope of the collection and the kinds of materials found in it
  • Listing of the folder titles contained in each box
  • Other basic information: the series number (like a call number, identifying the collection); the size of the collection, where the materials came from, any restrictions on access, and related collections

For many more details about the parts of a finding aid, see http://tinyurl.com/3m4kcgc

Citing Archival Sources

See your style guide (Chicago Manual of Style, MLA, or other) for the approved format for “Unpublished materials,” but if you get the following information you’ll be set for all purposes:

Description and date of item; box/folder location; collection title; series or call number; repository name; repository city/state/country

For Example:

Hurston to Herskovits, Nov 12 1934; Box 12, folder 5, Melville J Herskovits Papers (Series 35/6); Northwestern University Archives, Evanston IL

The Basics of Doing Archival Research

Finding the Primary Sources You Need

  • Frame your research questions well. To identify where primary-source materials might be, first think about how your topic would be documented. What kinds of sources would be likely to contain pieces of the puzzle: letters, diaries, founding documents, newspapers, reports?
  • Think about who or what would have produced or generated information about your topic: Which individuals? What groups—committees, clubs, corporations, the government?
  • Think about connections: Was there a specific person involved? If so, was that person affiliated with a group or organization or academic institution that has an archives? (Many corporations do—but those can be hard to get into because they’re not really set up for public use).
  • Some archives specialize in certain types of collection –labor-related, social welfare, Chicago literary figures, etc. State or local historical societies usually collect papers and official records that reflect the geographic location. University archives tend to focus on people and activities that are directly connected to the institution. 
  • Don’t forget the old fashioned way to find primary sources: start with bibliographies in books on the subject—look at “archival sources” or “unpublished sources.” Let earlier scholars help you get started!
  • You may need to adjust your topic to fit the materials available

 

Using an Archives or Special Collections

1.    Make your plans…

  • Understand how archives and special collections differ from a regular library
  • Look the archives' website over carefully to learn about the repository and its holdings, if there are online finding aids, etc (see box at left)
  • Never assume!
    • It’s not all online, so if you think something might be in a repository, ask!
    • All the answers may not be in a single collection. Ask if there are related collections that you may not know about, and also ask about photos, clippings, serial publications, etc., that relate to your topic
    • Ask about other repositories or resources the archivist may know about that hold related material You will most likely use more than one resource in the archives, including secondary sources that provide context and background.

 2. Before you visit

check the website or (better yet) contact the archives by phone or email to determine:

  • Exactly what is in a collection—if the folders you’ve requested contains one piece of paper or 200, if correspondence files contain both incoming and outgoing letters. This will help you plan how much time you’ll need to spend—or if the collection even has what you need
  • If you need to make an appointment
  • If you can request materials to be ready for you on your arrival. Many archives have holdings stored offsite. It can take hours or days to retrieve these.
  • The registration procedure: You may need a letter of reference from your advisor, or a letter describing your project
  • Open days and hours AND whether they close for lunch (to make sure you schedule enough time for your visit)
  •  What the procedure is for obtaining photocopies or scans—and if you can bring in a digital camera
  • Whether you can bring your laptop
  • Other rules and regulations that apply to the use of the specific archives’ materials

 3. Make Best Use of Your Time during Your Visit

  • Consult with the archivist once you get there
  • Know what collections you want to use—it helps to bring a copy of the online finding aid
  • Expect to spend a lot of time looking through things.
    • You might be reading handwritten documents that are difficult to decipher
    • You might have to look through many folders and boxes before you find what you need
    • You might find more than you thought—or less
    • Allow time for getting items paged, and for following up leads
  • Remember that most of your archival research is note-taking and “upfront gathering” -- you will do your synthesis and analysis later!
  • Get full citation information for each item you use! This saves MUCH time later! See Citation Guidelines elsewhere on this page.

Accessing Archival Resources from a Distance

If you can’t go to the Archives in person…

  • Consult with the archivist by email or phone
  • Request further information and arrange for photocopies or scans.
  • Some repositories have online forms to fill out for this purpose. It's always good to consult the archivist by phone or email even if there is a form. 
  • There are almost always charges for copies. Check the repository’s fee and permissions schedule.
  • Expect long waits to get your copies, and be aware of copyright restrictions

For More Information about Locating and Using Primary Sources

  • The University Archives staff can help you locate archival materials in our collections, and in collections in Chicago- and acrosss the country.
  • We offer individual consultation or classroom or small-group workshops on finding and using primary source materials.   

Topical Guide

Janet Olson's picture
Janet Olson
Contact:
110 Deering
Northwestern University Library
(847) 491-3136
library.northwestern.edu/archives