Archival Research at Barnard and Beyond!

Welcome to our guide on finding and using archival collections. Click on the plus signs below to expand the content.

Contacting the Barnard Archives and Special Collections

Read more about us, our collections and policies at

Contact us:
Shannon O’Neill - - 212.854.4079
Martha Tenney - -212.854.0986

Introduction - What are Archives

Getting Started

  • Questions to ask: What am I interested in finding that I can’t find in secondary sources? Who might have created the materials I’m looking for? When might they have created them? Where would those materials have been created, Why, and for Whom?

  • Think about the variety of document types that exist in archives (manuscripts, correspondence, diaries, photographs, audiovisual materials, computer files, scrapbooks, meeting minutes, reports, data sets, etc.) and ask yourself how various document types might factor into your research and analysis.

  • When deciding if an archival collection speaks to your research inquiries, review inventories, finding aids, or collection lists. Talk to an archivist!

  • Before going to the archives: Do background research to develop specific questions. Some materials (finding aids, digitized collections) may be available online, but not most.

What is a Finding Aid?

  • A finding aid is like a map to a collection. It answers the who/what/where/when/why questions about a collection. It also acts as a guide,  showing you the boxes and folders you will need to look through in order to find the document for which you are searching.

  • Here is an example of a finding aid for a collection held at the Barnard Archives and Special Collections: Guide to the Ntozake Shange Papers
  • Not all institutions finding aids will look the same, but there are several key elements you should pay attention to on every finding aid
    • Biographical/Historical Note: gives you background info about who created the collection
    • Scope and Content Note: tells you what kinds of materials you might find in the collection
    • Container/Box List: tells you where things are in the collection
    • Index Terms or Subject Headings: provide words to use to find similar collections
  • When communicating with an archivist about a collection you want to see, you’ll want to reference the title of the collection, the collection’s call number (sometimes called collection number), and - if possible - the number of the box you want to see.  

  • If you don’t know the above mentioned information, that’s okay - just be as specific as possible when talking to the archivist; e.g., instead of “I’m interested in looking at documents related to women’s higher education,” try “I want to discover how the courses offered at Barnard College between 1939 and 1945 reflected the social and political contexts of the WWII era.”

How to Find Archives

  • Locally (Barnard Archives and Special Collections):
    • The Barnard Archives and Special Collections has materials related to the history of Barnard College and materials that focus on Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies, and Dance. You can see a full list of all of collections held at the Barnard Archives and Special Collections’ on our website:
    • Within CLIO, you can construct a search for a term and “barnard archives” to find relevant collections. For example: feminism “barnard archives” 
  • Locally (Columbia University Archives and Special Collections):
    • In order to find archival collections on Columbia’s campus, within CLIO, you can click on the Archives facet on the left hand side. Search here using keyword to find archival materials related to your research.
    • Another tool is Archival Collections Portal. This tool will show you the same collections via the Archives facet in CLIO, just in a different way.
    • In either case, both CLIO and the Archives Portal searches six repositories within the Columbia Libraries: Avery Library, Department of Drawings and Archives; Burke Library Archives; Columbia University Archives; Health Sciences Archives & Special Collections; Rare Book & Manuscript Library; Starr East Asian Library Rare Books and Special Collections.
    • The Portal currently does not search Barnard collections
  • Finding Other Archives' Collections:
    • There are a few decent databases to help you find other archival repositories and collections that might match your research question. To start, we recommend ArchiveGrid and Archive Finder, but you can also try WorldCat and Google 
    • Talk with an archivist! Archivists have knowledge about the landscape of institutional collecting and can point you in a good direction.

Visiting an Archives & Typical Guidelines for Use of Archives

  • We recommend setting up an appointment to visit the Barnard Archives. Many other repositories require an appointment; so, make sure you research in advance whether or not you will need to schedule an appointment

  • Know the archives’ rules and, if they are not posted, inquire ahead of time. You may want to ask questions about protocols for ordering materials (if materials are off-site), rules on photography and other reproductions. You may also want to ask about rules for using laptops, phones, and other devices.
  • It’s advised to bring a light sweater or jacket! A lot of archives are temperature controlled and can be cold.
  • Take a lot of notes and make sure you write down box and folder numbers associated with those notes.
  • Ask questions of the archivist! Archives staff are there to help you.
  • You may be asked to present ID and you may be asked to place your coat/bag/other items in an area separate from where you are doing your research.
  • Food and drink are not permitted.
  • Remember that the order of the materials is important. Use one document/folder/box at a time and return the document/folder/box back to the location from where it came.
  • Kelly Wooten, of Duke University, created this wonderful zine about doing research in archives. It has tips on taking notes, questions to ask an archivist, tips on planning your trip, and self-care tips for spending long hours doing research.
  • You may find this blog post from the Journal of Higher Education, “6 Tools to Make Archival Research More Efficient” useful.
  • For more information, see the Society of American Archivists’ Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, Visiting an Archives and Typical Usage Guidelines

Requesting Materials Remotely

  • If a collection you want to search is far away, you can always call and ask if the archivist is willing to make a photocopy or digital reproduction for you. Most archivists are very happy to do remote reference like this. Be forewarned: some institutions charge a fee for copies and shipping!

Using Digital Collections

  • You can use digitized archival collections, or parts of digitized archival collections in your scholarship.

  • The benefit of digitized archival collections is that they can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection.

  • The limitation of digitized archival collections is that they are often curated; hence, the researcher is not experiencing an entire collection. When using a digital collection that is particularly useful or important to your scholarship, it is recommended that you contact the archives where the records are held, to ask what else in the collection might be pertinent to your research.

Interpreting Archival Records

After you’ve identified documents you want to use and have contextualized them in some way, you can begin to analyze them. When interpreting documents in archives, ask yourself questions like these:
  • What is the document? Who created the document, when did they create it, where did they created, why did they create it, and how did they create it?
  • What does the document communicate to you as a standalone object? What does it communicate to you in relation to other documents in the collection, to other documents in your research?
  • Does one document fill a gap in another document? Are arguments or ideas supported or refuted?
  • What is the creator’s viewpoint, perspective, or bias?
  • For whom was the document created?
  • What is not communicated in the document and why?
  • What is interesting or surprising to you about the document?

Citations, Copyright, and Publishing

Citation of Archival Resources
Archives often have slightly different ways for organizing their holdings, and therefore the citation may change depending on the institution with which you are working and the style of citations you are using (e.g. Chicago, APA, MLA). The following elements should be captured in your citation:

  • The repository where the item is held
  • The collection title and number (if available)
  • The subcollection or series in which the item is found
  • The box and  folder title or number in which the item is found
  • The document itself including any page, section or date information
  • Barnard Archives and Special Collections citations look like this:
    • Identification of Specific Item; Date (if known); Collection number - Collection name, inclusive dates; Box and Folder; Barnard Archives and Special Collections, Barnard Library, Barnard College.
    • Here is a sample citation: The Scholar and the Feminist IV program; 1977; Barnard Center for Research on Women records, 1962-2015; Box 10, Folder 12; Barnard Archives and Special Collections, Barnard Library, Barnard College.
  • When in doubt, ask a staff member!


  • Materials in the public domain are works for which copyright has expired or has been abandoned. They are not protected by copyright law and can be used without permission.

  • Fair use is a rule that allows, in specific cases, limited use of materials that are copyrighted without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder

  • Always talk to an archivist about issues of copyright and/or licensing before publishing content that you find in an archives.

  • It is the responsibility of the researcher to find the copyright holder and obtain the necessary rights before publishing or citing from materials.

  • Here are a few resources to help you determine if your use of an archives is under copyright, is in the public domain, or falls under fair use
  • Copyright issues in archives can be complex. Even though an archives may physically     hold or own a document, it does not necessarily mean the institution or repository holds the copyright for that document. Whether or not an institution or repository has copyright depends on several factors. Sometimes donors transfer copyright to an institution or repository; however, a donor can only transfer copyright for those materials which they have created.


  • Consider adding your work to Academic Commons, a digital repository of works published by individuals in the Barnard and Columbia communities. An added benefit is that you’ll receive a URL to your work which you can add to your resume!
  • Your Personal Librarian can help direct you to various journals and publications where you can submit your work. Your Personal Librarian can also talk with you about what you can expect from the process of submitting your work for publication.
  • Your rights as an author are very important. The Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office has a great tips for managing your rights for your scholarly work
  • Publishing your scholarship is a great part of the research cycle in which you can participate. Sharing your research opens new perspectives, findings, and avenues to other scholars and is, thus, an awesome way to participate in scholarly dialogue and your scholarly community. If you want to publish:

Guide last updated in March 2017 by Shannon O'Neill