8 Archives and Historical Research

While a larger and larger proportion of primary sources have been digitized, there will always be physical archives.  In this section, you’ll learn what archives are, why they exist, and how to take advantage of them. Sifting through actual documents and artifacts from the past can be great fun, and if you have the opportunity to visit an archive as a part of writing a historical research paper for a class, you should do so. Read up here and consider visiting an archival collection near you to locate unique sources.

Archives are the documents and records from individuals, organizations, and governments that have been preserved and made available to researchers because of their enduring value.  Archives aren’t just for historians, of course, they are saved for everyone. They are important because they provide evidence of activities and tell us more about individuals and institutions. They also tell stories and increase our sense of identity and understanding of cultures, societies, and human actions. They can even be used to protect hard-won civil, political, legal, and economic rights and to ensure justice. The bottom-line is archives are important to understanding the past and to documenting and protecting our rights as citizens.

Libraries and Archives

Chances are you have used libraries in the past for leisure reading, special programs, school projects, or a host of other activities. Libraries and their look, feel, and organization are familiar to most of us. Not so much archives. On the most basic level, libraries and archives are information providers, though they deliver information in different ways, and the type of information they contain is often different.

For example, libraries contain published works (books, journals, magazines, newspapers, electronic databases, etc.) created to educate, inform, and entertain, while archives contain mostly unpublished materials produced by individuals, organizations, and governments through normal day-to-day activities and only later are saved because they tell us something important about the past. A library’s collection is not unique, since most of the works it acquires are produced in multiple copies and sold to other libraries across the country. Archival holdings, however, are unique. You won’t find archival records in one repository duplicated anywhere else. There is an old cliché that says “libraries are for readers, while archives are for writers.” All sorts of people use libraries, but those planning to create knowledge for others use archives. While there are exceptions to this cliché, of course, we hope you get the point.

Because of their unique holdings, archival institutions oftentimes have well developed preservation, conservation, and security plans in place designed to protect and preserve their collections. After all, if an archival document is destroyed or stolen, it can’t be replaced. The limiting factor for libraries to replace missing items is money—does the library have the funds to purchase replacements? As a result, most libraries allow their materials to circulate outside the library and then replace lost and stolen items as needed. Archival materials are almost never allowed to leave the archives because they can’t be replaced.

Libraries and archives also process materials differently. Generally speaking, libraries catalog resources at the item level. You can search a library’s online catalog by subject, author, title, keyword, etc., and find discrete items focusing on your subject. Archives collections are maintained and processed at the collection level, and many collections have literally thousands of items in them (some considerably more). Rather than cataloging individual items in archival collections, archivists produce finding aids for collections as a whole. These finding aids, rather than library catalog records, are the access tools for researchers.  You can read more about how finding aids work below, but archives are also staffed by archivists, who help researchers as part of their jobs.  Don’t hesitate to ask them for help!

For a full discussion of the principles behind collecting for archives and the pathway to becoming an archivist, see the chapter on archiving as a profession – “Becoming an Archivist.”

Archives in the Dallas-Fort Worth Region

If you’re ready to work with an archive as part of your research project, there are plenty of options in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. These archives could be important for any number of different research topics from those pertaining to local history or to federal history, from cultural or religious history, to the history of technology or politics and many different topics in between.What follows is a list of some of the archives in the DFW metroplex, along with links to their homepages. Accessing their websites will give you information about the types of historical sources they have and what their use policies are.

City Archives

Dallas Municipal Archives

Dallas Public Library Special Collections (has a number of collections focusing on Dallas)

Fort Worth Public Library Genealogy, History, and Archives Department (houses numerous Fort Worth collections)

Most of the public libraries in the suburbs have local history collections too. Many of these collections also contain archival materials.

County Archives

Tarrant County Archives

Museum Collections

Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Dallas Historical Society

Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, Library and Archives

Dallas Jewish Historical Society

Dallas Museum of Art Archives

Documentary Arts, Dallas, Texas African American Photography Archive

Fort Museum of Science and History, Library and Archives

Frontiers of Flight Museum Research Library

Perot Museum of Nature and Science

University Collections

SMU Bridwell Library Archives

SMU DeGolyer Library

SMU Hamon Arts Library Bywaters Special Collections

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary J. T. and Zelma Luther Archives

TCU Library Special Collections

Texas Woman’s University Library Woman’s Collection

University of Dallas Library Archives and Special Collections 

University of North Texas Library Special Collections

University of Texas at Arlington Libraries Special Collections

University of Texas at Dallas Library Special Collections

Researching in Archives

As mentioned earlier, archives are different animals than libraries, and their policies and procedures reflect this. When visiting an archive for research purposes, be prepared to follow their rules, but also try to understand why these rules are in place. Remember, archival repositories hold unique collections that are impossible to replace, so user policies are more restrictive than those of libraries.

Most archives have a similar set of policies and procedures, including requiring you to register once you arrive to conduct research. In most archives, you will be asked to register as a user by showing some form of personal identification and completing a user form (which the archives will keep to document your visit). You may also be asked to lock up purses, backpacks, notebooks, and other non-essential items, only bringing paper, pencil (ink is prohibited in most archives because an errant mark can damage materials), or a computer into the research room for note-taking. A staff member will then conduct a reference interview with you to find out about your research focus and to help determine if, or how, the archives’ collection can help.

Once appropriate collections are identified, an archivist may provide a finding aid to each collection you want to use. A finding aid is an important access and descriptive tool for archival collections. Finding aids reveal information about who or what organization created the collection, the scope of the topics reflected in the collection, the dates of the materials in the collection, and a container list, showing what is in each box of the collection. By using the finding aid, you will be able to request specific boxes and folders from the collection. (A helpful site to finding aids in a number of archival institutions across Texas can be found at Texas Archival Resources Online.)

At this point, the archives staff will probably ask you to fill out “call-slips,” where you request specific boxes and/or folders from the collections you are interested in. The staff will retrieve the boxes/folders and bring them to you in the research room. Don’t be surprised if they give you one box at a time and require you to sit at a table that is being monitored by staff and/or video cameras. Keep in mind that security is a priority in all archival institutions. You will not be allowed to take the materials out of the research room, so your research must be conducted when the archives is open. Budget your time accordingly, keeping in mind that archives have limited hours, and archival research takes time and is unlike using books and other sources, which have indexes and other precise access tools.

Be sure when taking notes from an archives collection that you include bibliographic information that you will need later in order to cite the collection and its contents in your footnotes and bibliography. Many finding aids will show you how to cite a collection, but not all will. If the finding aid you are using doesn’t give you the bibliographic citation, then record the complete title of the collection, the collection’s unique identifying number (if it has one), the box and folder numbers you used, as well as the folder titles. As long as you have this information, then you will be able to write your footnotes and bibliography using any footnoting style and format.

When you find material that you want to copy or scan, then ask the staff about the archives’ copy policy. Some archives will allow you to scan documents using your phone or camera, while others may require that all copies and scans be done by staff members, who will charge you a fee to defray costs. If you think that publishing some of the items you are using may occur in the future (or even if there is only a remote possibility), then be aware that some archives have publication fees associated with the reproduction of archival materials in books, videos, advertisements, television, and other products, especially if these products are commercial in nature (as opposed to being sponsored by non-profits). It never hurts to request the archives’ fee schedule, so you will have this information.

Once you have completed your research, then return the archival boxes/folders to the staff member at the reference desk, retrieve the personal items you locked up when you registered, and depart. If you find that you have questions after leaving the archives, feel free to contact the archives staff to get the answers. They are happy to help.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book