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Introduction to Archival Research: Making FOIA and other requests

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.

Making FOIA and other requests

Archives usually hold records that are no longer in use by their creators. However, you may have research that requires access to information that is still held by the people or organizations who created it. For public records - those of federal, state, and local governments - there are open records laws that may allow you to access information that has not yet been deposited in an archive. For archival records housed in state and federal institutions, these records laws may help you to gain access to redacted versions of materials that are otherwise restricted. 

Accessing the public records of federal, state, and local governments is your right as a constituent, and the process is vital to government accountability, civic participation, and political advocacy.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that allows members of the public to request access to records created by agencies in the executive branch of the federal government. These include records of the Departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and other executive departments, as well as records held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). FOIA does not apply to the records of Congress or federal courts, private corporations, or state and local governments. See the tab above for information on state records laws. 

There are some types of records that cannot be accessed by FOIA requests, in effort to protect personal privacy, financial interests, and topics considered to be matters of national security. These may include:

  • Information classified as Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret
  • Trade secrets
  • Medical and personnel files of federal employees
  • On-going legal proceedings
  • Geological information, like water supply maps

When looking for federal records:

  1. First, see if the information you are seeking is already publically available, on a department website or in a library.
    • The University of Colorado Boulder is part of the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), meaning it holds copies of most federal government publications for public use. 
    • Many federal agencies have online "Reading Rooms" with access to records that have already been declassified and digitized.
  2. Submit a written FOIA request to the FOIA office of the agency that holds the records. Each agency may have its own request procedure and requirements. The request must include a "reasonable" description of the records or information you would like to see.

Keep in mind that finding the records you request and making copies or scans require time and labor from government archives workers. There may be a charge from the agency to fill your request, though some agencies have procedures to request a fee waiver.  

Federal records links: 

Each US state has its own laws to guarantee access to the records of the state government. In Colorado, this law is the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). CORA can be used to request access to any public records, which are generally understood to be records made or held by a state agency for a govermental purpose. This includes most departments of the state, like the Colorado Department of Education, and even the records of the University of Colorado system. CORA does not apply to tribal governments, which are sovereign political entities. 

Like FOIA at the federal level: 

  • CORA requests can be made directly to the agency that holds the records you'd like to see
  • CORA requests should be submitted in writing, with a description of the records or information you would like to access
  • There may be a charge from the agency to cover the time and labor required to fill a CORA request
  • Some types of records are exempt from being accessed via CORA, including educational and medical records, personnel files, and prorpietry corporate information