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Archives and Special Collections Research Services

Archival Research Introduction

This guide will help you discover the rewards of doing archival research, which can be different than doing research in a general library collection. You'll find guidance on identifying and using archival collections at Mount Holyoke and beyond. To get started, consult the Society of American Archivists publication Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research.

Identifying Collections

Local Collections
Use ArchivesSpace to read detailed collection descriptions (also called finding aids) for manuscript and archival material in Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

Reading Collection Descriptions
Collection descriptions, inventories, or guides can help you determine whether a particular collection will be useful for your research. These descriptions may be available through catalogs, databases, research guides, or other finding aids. If an online guide is not available, contact the repository for further information.

Questions to Consider

  • Does the collection cover the time period in which you're interested?
  • How much material does the collection comprise? Size may be noted in inches, linear feet, cubic feet, volumes, folders, reels, etc. The extent will give you an indication of how much time it will take for you to use the entire collection or a portion of it.
  • Where is the repository located? Can you get there easily? If travel to the library is prohibitive, you may be able to request copies of documents from the collection.
  • How is the collection organized? Pinpoint the portions of the collection (i.e. boxes or folders) that you believe will be of most use to your project. Interpret the language and wording used by the archives and the individual or organization that created the material.

Reading and Understanding a Finding Aid

A finding aid serves as both the table of contents and index of an archival collection. It will help you determine whether the collection has material of interest to you, and, if so, where that material is located.

Finding Your Way Through Finding Aids: Archives 101
This excellent guide from Dorothy Berry, the Digital Collections Program Manager, at Harvard University's Houghton Library, provides information on what a finding aid is, what's in it and what is not, and how to read a finding aid. Although some things are Harvard-specific, many are general.

Using Finding Aids
A guide to using finding aids from San Diego State University, with a nice introduction to the types of information you will find in each section of the finding aid.

About Finding Aids
This guide to archives in Chicago provides an overview of what a finding aid is.

How do archivists organize collections?
This blog post from the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives discusses how and why archivists organize materials the way they do.

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