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Introduction to Archival Research

Get started understanding how to find and use archival collections in your school work, professional research, or family research.

What is an archival "collection"?

Each archival institution holds a number of separate archival collections. Each archival collection is usually: 

  • Acquired from a single original creator - like the personal papers of an artist or politician, or the records of an organization or student group. 
  • Stored together with other material from the same person or organization from which it was acquired.
  • Comprised of a variety of different types of material - including paper records, photographs, media, maps, or other documents. 

Unlike many library resources, archival material is not usually arranged according to subject or material type. Keeping material together according to the source of the collection - what we call Provenance - is a fundamental principle of archival practice, intended to maintain the original historical context in which material was created.

Material from the Stan Brakhage collection, including documents and drawings, a photo contact sheet with images of Brakhage with a film camera, film reels, cassette tapes, and a pile of published film catalogs

Image credit: Material from Stan Brakhage collection, University of Colorado Boulder Libraries

For example, the image above shows a small sample of material received by the CU Boulder Libraries' Archives from the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. All of these materials - including postcards, audio tapes, and published film catalogs - are kept together in the archive in the Stan Brakhage Collection, to maintain the context in which he used them in his life and work. 

To search for archival material, you may need to identify what collections are relevant to your research. Which individual people, organizations, government offices, or institutions would have created the primary source evidence you'd like to find? Search for archival collections holding material from these people or organizations. 

Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B