CSWR Resource Guide

A guide to the resources housed at the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections

Welcome to the Archives!

Getting Started With Archival Research

Archives are strange things. Each one is different, with different histories and different strengths. This page, Archival Research Introduction, will give a broad overview of what archival research means and how to get started with it. Since this introduction is part of a guide to the resources at the Center for Southwest Research, the procedures described here will reflect those used at the CSWR. Users will find working with other archival collections broadly similar, but things like rules of access, hours, security, and how collections are organized and identified may differ from one repository to another. 

This part of the guide assumes little to no experience working with archival materials. For more information about some of the terms used in this guide, have a look at the CSWR Collection Identifiers tab.

For more experienced researchers, take a look at the CSWR Resources In Depth. These pages go into detail about using the different resources within the CSWR to find materials. For more detailed information about conducting research at the CSWR specifically, including explanations of the collection organization, examples of how to request materials, and other nuts-and-bolts information, check out the CSWR Examples and Tips page. 

Archives in More Detail

Question: What exactly do you find in an archives?

The short answer:

All kinds of things! Books, old newspapers and magazines, videos, paintings, sculptures. You name it, there's an archive for that kind of thing somewhere. Generally, archives collect, house, and make available unpublished materials produced through the regular operation of an organization, institution, individual or family. In the case of an organization's archive, the materials will consist of non-current documents. For example, tax documents from a decade ago may no longer have a day-to-day use, but could be preserved in an archive both for future researchers, as well as for their potential evidentiary use by the organization in case of a tax audit. In the case of an individual, an archives might house things like journals, correspondence, drafts, and other materials produced by the individual during their career. 

The longer answer:


Since archives are specialized, different repositories house different kinds of materials. For example, the CSWR houses a variety of objects related to the American Southwest, including the papers and architectural drawings of John Gaw Meem, a famous New Mexico architect. The Center also houses a variety of collections that include photographic material, audiovisual material, papers, and other physical objects. 


Institutional History

Archival collections are themselves historical. That is, the objects and collections gathered together in a repository will reflect which donors wanted to leave their materials to the archives, whether those materials were in good enough shape to preserve, decisions on the part of archivists about the historical value of these materials, considerations of space, and so on. This means that even making an exhaustive search in the finding aid is no substitute for actually going through the materials themselves, whether in person or digitally if the collection has been made available that way. It also means that certain collections might skew in a particular direction or bear disproportionate percentages of a certain kind of material. For example, a collection that specializes in American folk art might have a greater percentage of handmade quilts in its collection than, say, a regional archive housing collections from Appalachia, even if the latter collection does have some quilts as well. 

The historicity of archival collections also means that, in some cases, objects and collections use language that would today be considered inappropriate or worse. Social, political, and economic changes over the decades mean that researchers will, almost certainly, eventually run into inappropriate, offensive, or otherwise harmful material. Different archives have different ways of dealing with these kinds of issues, and attention to rectifying past injustices and ensuring inclusivity in archives is a growing concern in the field. That said, researchers should bear in mind the possibility of encountering harmful material. 



After gaining ownership of a collection and determining whether the materials are in stable enough condition to be made available to researchers, archivists undertake the task of going through the materials in the collection to organize and describe them. If you look at a random collection in the New Mexico Archives Online (NMAO) - say, the Day Science Fiction Collection (MSS-318-BC) - you will see that the collection is described down to the item level. That is, you can search for a particular magazine title from a particular year and find which box that title and issue is housed in. However, the stories and articles contained within that issue of that title are not listed. So, if you're looking for stories by L. Sprague DeCamp, for example, you'll need to look elsewhere than the collection finding guide to determine where to look. 

While it may seem like an inconvenient oversight not to list story and article titles in the collection finding aid, given the Day collection's size, this would have delayed making the collection available to researchers. This is another important point to mention: describing, managing, and maintaining archival collections takes time, work, money, and space. And, of course, there is never enough of all these things at once. Archival collections often consist of dozens or even hundreds of boxes of materials, meaning that painstakingly describing each and every item might take a very long time. While a detailed and itemized finding guide might be helpful for future researchers, the time it would take to produce such a guide would keep the collection from being useful to researchers now. 

An archival packing list

Patrons and researchers will typically not go into the spaces where archival materials are stored. Rather, the parts of the archive that users see are the "front end" of the repository: check in, lockers for personal belongings, and reading room spaces. 

Different repositories have different rules regarding the things patrons may bring into the reading room with them. At the most basic, patrons will typically not be allowed to bring food or drink, pens (because ink is indelible), or bags with them into the reading room for reasons of security and conservation. Archivists take seriously the need to preserve materials for as long as possible, and may require patrons to handle items carefully or wear gloves in some cases. There may also be stricter rules that apply to more fragile objects. Repositories will normally provide secure places for patrons to store their things while consulting materials in the reading room, but it's always best to call ahead and check (this goes double for parking.)

Most repositories also have some form of security check. Patrons will typically need to present an ID - sometimes a government ID, but student/university IDs are often ok as well. Some repositories, especially of collections that are very old, valuable, or politically or socially contentious, might require further security measures, such as emptying one's pockets and walking through a metal detector, or the repository reserving the right to inspect patrons' bags. Reading rooms will often have camera systems to supervise researchers while they are in the room. These measures might seem invasive to some, but patrons should remember the archives' goal of preserving materials for as long as possible, for as many researchers to use as possible. Since many archival materials are unique and irreplaceable, archival staff take pains to keep these materials safe and in good shape. 

The CSWR not allow food or drink, bags, or pens, in the reading room, but phones (silenced), computers, notebooks, and pencils are all just fine. 


Things to bring to the reading room Things to leave out of the reading room
Pencils and notebooks Pens of any kind (even the supposedly "erasable" ones)
(silenced) phones, laptop computers Food or drink

An ID - bring a government ID like a driver's license and a student/university ID, just to be safe

Bags, including purses. The CSWR has lockers for patrons to store their personal effects. 
A list of collections to consult, or a question to start working on If you are working with materials from outside of the reading room, make sure to let the archivist know when you arrive so there is no confusion about which materials go where!


Some Dos and Don'ts in the Archives

Some general things to remember:

  • Avoid letting your phone ring out loud. If you need to take a call, please do so outside of the reading room. 
  • When consulting collections, remember to only pull out one folder at a time, and only work from one box at a time. This way materials don't get misfiled. 
  • Avoid taking notes on paper directly on top of archival materials (and always use pencil!)
  • Bear in mind that archival materials may take a few minutes to find and pull. 
  • Make sure to communicate clearly with the archivists or archival staff on duty, especially when finished with materials. If you plan to come back soon and continue working, let the archivist on duty know that as well. 
  • Remember to follow the instructions of archivists or archival staff, especially if they ask you to wear gloves or take other protective measures when consulting materials. It's nothing personal, they just want to make sure that other researchers will also have the opportunity to use those materials as well. 

Some Tips and Tricks

Working with archives can present challenges because each one is different. While archives have moved toward a set of standards in recent decades, each repository is nonetheless unique and will take some getting used to. Despite each repository's uniqueness, however, some general tips and tricks apply to using archival sources. 

  • Do your homework 
    • Before visiting a repository, get to know its collections and their scope and contents. Now that finding guides are almost universally online, this is typically pretty easy to do. Pro tip: Many online finding guides will include fields that are hidden by default to make the page easier to read. Expand those fields and read the whole thing. Nitty-gritty details like access restrictions or media format that could present challenges when patrons arrive at the repository often hide toward the bottom of the finding guide page.
    • Make notes of which collections seem like they would be useful to you (and also why they seem useful - trust me, you'll forget later), and bring those notes with you when you visit. Likewise, keep careful track of materials consulted. 
    • Have a contingency plan. Sometimes, despite everyone's best efforts, materials go missing. These might have been misfiled or mis-shelved somewhere, taken to the bindery for conservation care, taken to the cataloguer's office for a new barcode sticker, etc. While materials will almost always turn up eventually, it can be helpful to have a list ready of other materials you would like to consult while waiting. 
    • Double check hours of operation. While university libraries are often open quite late, or even 24 hours a day, reading rooms in which patrons can consult archival materials tend to operate with more limited hours. Reading rooms located on university or college campuses will follow the university-wide schedule for closures, so it's a good idea to double check before making travel plans. Also note that some reading rooms are not open on weekends, or only open with limited hours on weekends. 

  • Get in touch 
    • Archivists and archival staff are more than happy to answer your questions. Contacting the repository by email or phone can help researchers make better use of their time in the archives. This can also help patrons be prepared for any special restrictions on the use of certain collections. 
      • While phone calls are welcome, patrons with very detailed or difficult questions should consider sending an email. This allows the archivist or archival staff member who responds to make sure they are answering the question to the best of their ability. It may take longer to receive a response, but the response is more likely to be a more helpful one. 
    • Many repositories offer patrons the ability to request materials online before they arrive at the repository. This is especially useful if you only have a limited amount of time and want to make the most of it. Calling ahead to ask for materials to be pulled is also a good idea. 
    • With their knowledge of the collections, archivists and archival staff also serve as useful resources for points where the research isn't going so well. Archivists might be able to suggest collections or materials that might not have immediately seemed relevant, or point researchers in the direction of other resources that might be helpful.