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Using Archives

Information on archival and primary source research, and how to access the University of Melbourne Archives

What to expect

Reading room rules

Once material has been ordered, you will need to visit a reading room to view it. Because of its unique and valuable nature archival material cannot be borrowed, and there are usually security measures - such as video monitoring and restrictions on exit doors - in place at the reading room. Some archives will require you to register as a reader, while others will require you to sign an access form giving information about your position and your project. These measures should not be intimidating. They exist merely to ensure the security of documents that the archive is entrusted to protect.

There are other reading room rules that need to be observed, although they might vary among different archives. Eating and drinking (including bottled water) are not permitted, neither is the use of pens. Lockers are usually provided as bags are not allowed. Reading rooms are quiet research spaces, so mobile phones are often not permitted.

Copying material

Each archive has different copying policies and procedures, but all are governed by copyright restrictions. It is a good idea to check the website or speak to a staff member about copying arrangements before you arrive. 

Luck?

You should be prepared to be surprised or disappointed by the material. The comprehensiveness of a collection will depend on the original creator. Some people and organisations will have kept most of their records in very good order, others will have been inconsistent at best. Archival research has often been described as a lucky dip, and this is part of its attraction. You will not know the entire contents of the collection until you start to look through the material itself. You might find that gem that becomes the cornerstone for your project, or you might not find a document you feel should have been included in the collection. The only way to ensure that you have the best luck possible is to be certain that your seconday research has been comprehensive.  

Taking notes

It is important to take detailed notes of the location of documents, including the collection name, the box and series/item/control numbers. This is to ensure that you will be able to cite the item correctly if it is included in your research paper. Not only is this necessary scholarly practice but it will mean that future researchers, having read your paper and looking to follow up on a particular topic, will be able to find the document themselves. Simply citing the collection name is insufficient, bearing in mind that some collections run to hundreds of metres of material.

Remember that if you are photocopying or photographing documents to work on later, you need to work out a proper system of recording their details. This will mean that you avoid having a digital camera full of useful information which you cannot use because you do not know how to cite it unless you visit the archive again.

Citing and copyright

Citing

Most archives will have information sheets about citing material properly. If you are unsure about how to cite an item, you should ask. This is because various archives use different naming and numbering conventions. You will also need to consider the citation style for your school or discipline.

Copyright

Archives are subject to stricter copyright provisions than you will generally find in libraries. This is because unpublished material is more likely to be copyright restricted. Copyright for unpublished material exists in perpetuity. You must discuss requests for copying with staff.

For more information, see the University of Melbourne Copyright Office website.