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Guide to Archival Research

A guide on conducting archival research. Includes instructions on finding archival material at the Dalhousie University Archives.

Tips for first-time visitors

Review these tips before visiting the University Archives in the Killam Memorial Library or the Agricola Collections at the MacRae Library. It is also a good idea to review our glossary of archival terminology and learn about proper techniques for handling archival material.

Researchers are invited to contact the Archives for orientations to the archives collections and for assistance locating material.

1. Procedures

  • Closed stacks.  Researchers cannot browse the stacks where archival materials are held.  Researchers must request the items from staff who will then retrieve the materials for you to view in the Reading Room.
  • Non-circulating items.  Materials located in the Archives do not circulate. The materials may only be used in the Reading Room.
  • Photocopying.  All archival materials need to be photocopied by staff, due to the unique nature of the material. Large requests may take a number of days to process. See our website for more information.
  • Digital pictures. Digital photographs may be taken. Flash photography is prohibited. Check with the Archives staff for details.
  • Hours of service..
    • The Archives and Special Collections Reading Room in the Killam Library is open from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Friday. Requests for archival materials must be made before 4:00 p.m.
    • The Agricola Collections at the MacRae Library are accessible by appointment only, 8:30 to 4:30, Monday to Friday.
  • No food or beverages.  The Archives and Special Collections Reading Room has a strict no food/no drink policy. Researchers are asked to finish their food and beverages prior to coming into the reading room to do archival research.
  • No pens. Pens and highlighters are not permitted near archival materials, so make sure you bring some #2 pencils and some erasers with you, preferably a vinyl eraser. We use Staedtler Mars white vinyl erasers.

2. Bring your DalCard or Other Photo ID

  You will need your DalCard or some form of Photo ID to gain access to materials in the University Archives.  Staff require that you leave your ID card at the desk while you look at the archival material. 

4. Bring snacks

Although food or beverages cannot be consumed in the Archives and Special Collections Reading Room, it's a good idea to bring snacks on your visit.  Archival research can be time consuming.   Snack bars, raisins, and fruit provide much-needed energy to get through long visits.  Food and drink may be consumed in other areas of the library and university.

5. Review other archives research guides

6. Take notes

Archival research is time consuming. It is also most successful when you have a clear plan for how to take notes during the visit. Notes should include:

  • Name of institution
  • Title of fonds / manuscript collection / record group
  • Title of series and/or file 
  • Date(s) of material
  • Reference codes
  • Exact title or description of item
  • Annotation of the information that interests you
  • Use quotation marks to record verbatim transcriptions of factual data and other excerpts that you intend to use as a cited primary source
  • Record complete citations for all material used during the research visit, even the material you do not intend to use
  • Consider writing summary notes for each fonds or collection consulted during the research visit
    • Chronological scope and arrangement
    • Whether all or part of the fonds or collection was reviewed
    • List of items which you plan to use
    • List of items which seem irrelevant at the conclusion of the research visit