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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.
Understanding access restrictions Culturally protected records Making FOIA and other requests
Copyright and use Citing archival material  

This guide provides some preliminary information about legal issues like Copyright, Fair Use, and Public Domain. These sources do not constitute legal advice. You are responsible for making your own educated judgments when using copyrighted material.

Citing archival resources

Because archival material is generally original and unpublished, it is not as easy to write academic citations like you would for books, articles, and other research sources. The Purdue Online Writing Lab recommends two approaches: 

Check the Finding Aid or webpage for the archival repository to see if a preferred citation method is provided. 

At CU Boulder, the ArchivesSpace page for each archival collection contains a "Citation" button that will generate a citation according to our preferred standard. See the "CU Boulder Archives" tab above for more.



Adapt your standard citation format to include archival identifiers. 

Using whichever citation style you choose (APA, MLA, or Chicago), write a citation that includes :

  • Information about the document
  • Information about the collection and collection arrangement
  • Information the archival repository

For the archival document, write a citation with as much information as you have:


If the author is unknown, start with the citation with the title; do not put "anonymous" or "unknown author."

You can use the name of a corporation or organization - like the World Health Organization - in the author field, in all three citation styles. 


If a document is not titled by the creator or the archive, you may provide a descriptive title, like "Memo" or "Personal diary."

APA style requires descriptive titles to be in brackets: "[Personal Diary]"

Publisher and location Most archival material does not include publication information, because it was not published. Including the location of creation is not necessary.

May be unknown. Most citation styles allow approximate dates if the exact date is uncertain. Approximate dates are often indicated with brackets, a question mark, or some form of the word "circa" or "n.d." for "not dated." For example: 

  • MLA style - [circa 1880] or [c. 1880] or [1880?]
  • APA style - [ca. 1880] or (n.d.)
  • Chicago style - [1880?] or n.d. or n.d., ca. 1880

Add information identifying the collection, the location of the document within the collection, and the archival repository. Use as much information as available:

  • Box #, Folder #, Item # 
  • Collection # - Use the numbering system or format listed in the collection Finding Aid
  • Collection Name
  • Name of Archives
  • Name of Institution - if the archives has a more specific name than the university or institution it is found, like the Beck Archives at the University of Denver
  • Location
  • Date of access - is no longer necessary for some citation systems


MLA: Roberts, Walter Orr. Memo to NCAR Staff. 24 April 1967. Box 51, Folder 22. COU:1356, Walter Orr Roberts Collection. University of Colorado Boulder Libraries Special Collections and Archives, Boulder. 
APA: Trippi, L. (1991, February 21). [Letter to Mark Simpson]. MssCol 3648, Gran Fury collection (Box 1, Folder 9). Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.
Chicago: Five Points Business Association, 31st Annual Juneteenth Celebration program, [1997], ARL18,  Box 1, Folder 12, Otha Rice Sr. papers, Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library Collection, Denver Public Library, Denver.

If you're having trouble, ask the archivist, your course instructor, or your publisher what citation method they prefer.

Additional Resources

Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B