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Introduction to Archival Research: Digital collections

Digital collections

Many archives now have collections of digitized material that is available to view online. 

Some important points to consider:

  • Digital collections are usually smaller, curated portions of material from larger collections. The archive may hold much more material about this topic that has not yet been digitized.
  • These websites themselves may not allow direct download of digitzed material. If you identify material that you would like to use, contact the host organization or institution for information on how to receive a usable copy of the item. Each institution will have its own regulations and/or fees for access and use of material. 
  • Digital collections are usually made available for scholarly reference and under fair use guidelines. You are still responsible for verifying the copyright status of downloaded material and for following fair use and copyright guidelines when using material from digital collections. See the "Copyright and fair use" section of this guide, in the "Access and use" tab above

Screenshot of CUDL Digital Library with title, "26 Images from Walter Orr Roberts Thesis." Document viewer shows diagram of coronograph telescope with parts labeled and typed caption

Screenshot: Walter Orr Roberts papers, CU Digital Library

Why don't archivists digitize everything?

Understanding metadata

When you do archival research in a Reading Room, you can usually page through the all the material in a folder, box, or collection. In contrast, when collections are digitized and made available online, you usually search and discover one document at a time. When doing archival research from digital collections, it's very important to understand the metadata that describes each archival document. 

The simplest definition of metadata is "data about data." 

Metadata refers to all of the descriptive information that an archive or digital platform provides about a resource, including: 

  • Title
  • Dates
  • Creator
  • Physical description and technical format information
  • Name of the collection, series, box, or folder in which this item is stored

This information may not be original to the document. Most of us to do not label all of our letters, research notes, or other documents with clearly identifiable titles, in anticipation of future historical researchers. Instead, metadata is written and provided by archivists, based on physical examination of the records, the collection context, information given by the donor, historical research, and other sources.

To properly identify and evaluate primary source documents found in digital collections, be sure to consult the metadata information that accompanies it. It may help you to understand the what, when, and where of the document, who created it in, and how it was used. 

Recommended collections

The following are some suggested digital collections of archival material, though there are many more. Most archives, universities, and historical societies now have collections of digitized material available for online access. 

Additional resources: