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Finding Archives: Visiting repositories

Guide to searching for archival material including where archives are kept, search strategies, archive catalogues, online portals, research guides, and visiting repositories.

“Knowing comes from learning, finding from seeking”

Vaddey Ratner 

Before your visit

Check the website of the repository you are planning to visit, and phone ahead if you are unclear about anything.

You might find that access to archival material is by appointment only in small archives services with limited resources. Details of how to book will usually be on their website. Even if you don't need to make an appointment, it might be possible to request items in advance so they are ready when you arrive.

A reader's ticket is usually required to access archival material. These should be free, but you may be required to show identification in order to request a ticket. Identification should clearly show your full name, address and signature, however, it is a good idea to check with individual repositories what identification is accepted.

Prepare a list of items that you want to see and bring this with you. The reference numbers of individual items are required to request items so be sure to make a note of this information.

On the day

Time and systematic work practices make for a successful research trip.

Always put aside more time than you think you will need. If the material you request ends up being difficult to read you will need longer to fully make sense of it. You may also have to factoring in waiting time for requested items to be retrieved for you.

When writing up research you will need to reference sources, just as you would attribute theories, ideas and quotes taken from secondary reading. It can be helpful to write the reference number in brackets at the beginning or end of notes you take from an individual item. Doing it at this stage makes referencing sources much easier when it comes to writing up.

If individual services allow, it can be helpful to take photographs of key documents that you might want to refer back to at a later date. Doing this on the day, even if there is a small charge, will save you having to make a return trip to the repository.

Access restrictions

For various legal and ethical reasons, some items might not be available to view.

Legal considerations include:

  • Data protection legislation - Requires that some records be closed to public access in order to protect the sensitive data and privacy of still living individuals
  • Copyright legislation - You are only able to copy archival material for private research (permission to use images online and for publication must be explicitly sought)

Ethical considerations include:

  • Potential damage to fragile items which might be caused by handling
  • Requests from depositors to restrict access to individual items on certain grounds
  • Duty to preserve material for future generations, not just current researchers

Check with individual repositories ahead of time if you are concerned there may be access issues relating to any material you wish to see.

Rules of the reading room

When visiting archival repositories you will usually be asked to abide by a few simple rules.

These rules regulate the use of archives and are there to manage access and preservation issues, which archives services are legally and ethically obligated to consider.


  • Use pencils, notepads, laptops etc.
  • Use camera without flash (with express permission only)
  • Use weights and equipment provided (to make handling and reading documents easier)


  • No substances which might cause damage to archival materials (for instance, food, drinks, liquid such as ink)
  • No items which might irreversibly mark archival material (for instance pens, sharp implements, rubbers, scissors)
  • No behaviour which might cause mechanical damage to documents (leaning on, tracing over documents, or using fingers to follow lines of text)
  • No bags (to prevent security risk of archival material being stolen)