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Archival Research: Home

This guide will help you in doing periodical and primary source research for both American and British assignments

Archival Research: The Basics

Performing in depth research may require accessing archives, special collections, or archival databases.  Archives are institutions or parts of institutions that preserve records of a person or entity for further use in the future.  Archives usually have both intrinsic and extrinsic values.  It not only includes paper materials.  Special collections often have books, manuscripts, film, audio recordings, and other materials.  Most of these places, if not all, are accessible to researchers.

However, not everyone can jet across the United States to obtain the information they need.  Microforms have allowed library's to purchase, for example, periodicals that they may not have had access to before.  Developing technology has allowed materials to be scanned and assembled into searchable databases that people thousands of miles away can access.  Not only does this foster the research community, but it also preserves the precious materials that are housed in archives from being overused and further damaged.

These pages highlight databases and TCU special collections and archives that may be of use to those focusing on American culture.  TCU Library has purchased some of these databases and other are free online.  I have group and provided descriptions of these databases.  For particular ones, I have provided short presentations on how to navigate them.

Search Strategies for Archival Databases

1. With historical newspapers and periodicals, be aware that spelling and word usage have changed over time

2. Fuzzy is not just a bear with no hair:  In some databases, fuzzy searches allow you to look for words that have different spellings.  For example, fairy (faerie) and harbor (harbour) can be spelled a number of ways in older text. Always select “low”searches.  

3. Periodicals can change names and editors.  Publication information and history can be very valuable.  When looking at publication information, look to see if your publication may have changed names so that you can look at its continuing issues.  Often, these publications are linked in the databases.  Look for the primary subject of the publication.  Did that subject change over time?  Who were the editors and/or the main contributors?  This information can clue you into a large amout of social history of a periodical.

4. Stories are serialized.  Sometimes, chapters or pieces of works appear in the same periodical over a period of time.  Search the periodical to see if the rest of the story may be published in several issues.

Most of our archival databases can be found under the following database categories:




Types of Archival Spaces

Many types of spaces exist that hold archival materials.  The list below are some that you may encounter in your research.

Historical Societies

These house materials usually dedicated to a certain subject, group, geographical or municipal area, time period, or historical event.


Dedicated the preservation and conservation of records of an entity or person that has historical importance

Special Libraries or Centers

These places often have archival papers, artifacts, manuscripts and books and are dedicated to a subject or region


Many museums have libraries as well as artifacts in their possession that can be used.

Visiting an Archives or Special Collections

Many people find contacting and visiting archives or special collections daunting.  However, a wonderful discovery process can occur when you hold items in hand.  I wanted to provide everyone with a couple of pointers on contacting and going to archives/special collections.

1. Don't be afraid to contact archives, historical societies, or special collections.  You will be amazed at some of the ways they can help you obtain information through finding aids.

2. Be prepared to explain what you are using an item for or pay for copies.

3. Bring a pencil.   Bring a pencil.  Bring a pencil.  Not all places allow computers.  And none allow pens.  Bring a pencil.

4. You will more than likely be asked to leave your belongings outside of the reading area in a locked area, so try not to bring expensive items with you.

5. Before you go, as about copies or ability to take digital pictures if copying is not allowed.  Some copying can cause serious damage to materials.

6. No food. No drink. Period.  Archives have to be protected against infestations of creepy crawlies that love paper.

7. Bring a sweater if you get cold easily.  Archives and special collections are climate controlled to prevent high humidity to preserve items.

8.  If you have notes, ask if you can bring them in.

9. Be prepared to deal with copyright and permission.  Some collections may have parts of them sealed from public viewing until a certain date or may require you to sign a permission slip.  Read this slip carefully.  It usually has information on where the material can be used or displayed and how to cite the information.

Humanities & Theatre

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Ammie E. Harrison
Mary Couts Burnett Library
TCU Box 298400
Fort Worth, TX 76129
(817) 257-5338