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Archives and Creative Writing

This guide offers resources, prompts, and readings about how to use archival materials for creative writing projects.

Getting Started with Archives Research

  • 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, recordings, 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.
  • An example of a finding aid for a collection held at the Barnard Archives and Special Collections is the 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.”

Tips and Tools for Finding 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 finding aids 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 side navigation. Search here using keyword to find archival materials related to your research.

  • CLIO searches seven repositories within the Columbia Libraries: Avery Library, Department of Drawings and Archives; Barnard 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.

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, try ArchiveGrid, but you can also try WorldCat and Google.

  • Trace back from secondary sources: what sources are other scholars using to analyze and provide evidence for their arguments? Are these the types of materials that you are interested in utilizing?

  • 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’ policies 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), policies 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, take pictures/make scans as permitted by the repository rules, and make sure you write down box and folder numbers associated with those notes (or take photographs of box numbers) to be able to cite materials later. Software like Tropy can be helpful for keeping track of the photos you take in archives.
  • 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 generally 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.
  • If a collection you want to search is far away, you can always call and ask if the archivist is willing to make a scan or send digital files to you. Most archivists are very happy to do remote reference like this. Be forewarned: some institutions charge a fee!
  • 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.
  • For more information, see the Society of American Archivists’ Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, Visiting an Archives and Typical Usage Guidelines