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A Guide to Archival Research

Rules of the Reading Room

When you arrive at the reading room, check in with the front desk. You will be asked to present photo identification (e.g. student card or drivers’ licence). In most archives, if it is your first visit, you will also be asked to register and sign a researcher agreement. 

There are a few general things to remember when working in an Reading Room which will be the same at most archival repositories:

→ Food or drinks, pens, highlighters or markers, bags and coats are strictly prohibited  in the Reading Room. Items like these can cause irreversible damage to irreplaceable archival material and/or jeopardize the security of the collection. You will be asked to leave your belongings in a locker or coat rack.

→ Reading rooms are quiet spaces meant for research. You will be expected to work quietly and with respect for other users of the space. Phone conversations and other distracting activities will not be permitted.

→ Reading Rooms are meant solely for the use of archival materials; they are not general study spaces. If you are not using archival materials, you will be asked to leave.

→ Many archives have specific retrieval times. This means that the staff will only retrieve material at set times (maybe only once or a few times a day). It’s best to plan early and let the archives know what material you will need before you visit.

 Archival material is often held in other facilities off-site. So don’t expect to be able to see something right away! It may take days or weeks for the material to be ready for you. Again, it’s best to plan early and let the archive know what material you will need before you visit.

But most importantly…

⇒ Every reading room has their own rules! It’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules of the archives prior to your visit and to bear them in mind when you arrive. If you are unsure about the rules, please ask staff!

The William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections rules can be found here.

Using the Collections

There are a few things to keep in mind while working with archival material. Some of these pointers are rules and others are friendly advice which we recommend for the best possible experience in the archives!


  • Material must never be removed from the Reading Room
  • Care must be exercised in handling all materials. Pages may not be folded, rifled through, written on, etc. Handle all items deliberately and gently, one page at a time.
  • The order of folders in a box, and of items within each folder, must be maintained. Documents are not to be re-organized in any way.
  • Photography may or may not be allowed, depending on the rules of the archives and the nature of the materials.
  • Archives may deny you the right to copy any document due to fragility, format, copyright, or other restrictions.

Friendly Advice

  • Give yourself lots of time. Archival research is not a quick process; it can be complex and require a lot of patience. That's part of what makes it useful and special. Allocate a good deal of time for your research.
  • As you conduct your research, keep very detailed notes about which folders and boxes contain the information you photographed or plan to cite. It can be very frustrating to find something useful and then to forget where you found it!
    • Write down the Fonds/Collection name, the Box Number, and the File number for every document that you identify as potentially useful. In some cases, documents also have their own Document Numbers - write that down too if there is one! For example:
  • Marian Engel Fonds, Box 4, File 10, incomplete typescript
  • Bertrand Russell Fonds, Box 5.56, Document 057720, letter from Ludwig Wittgenstein dated 1912/06/22
  • When taking approved photographs of archival documents, take a photo of the folder (which should include the box and file number) before photographing the document that you want -- or make sure the folder number is in the photograph with the document. This will help identify and organize your research when you are scrolling through your photos after your visit. Learn more about how to organize and cite your archival material on the next page of this guide.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Most Reading Rooms are staffed with archivists who are available for consultation. They will be able to discuss how to use the archives and how to search for and request material.
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