How to Research

Archives - Feature 2

What’s the difference between an Archives and a Library?

Libraries can generally be defined as collections of books or other published materials that are not unique. Patrons can access materials at the library, via the Internet, or by checking them out for personal use. Libraries exist to make their collections available to the people they serve. 

Archives also exist to make their collections available to people, but differ from libraries in the types of materials they hold and the way materials are accessed and arranged.

  • Types of Materials: Archives can hold both published and unpublished materials, and those materials can be in any format. Some examples are manuscripts, letters, photographs, moving image and sound materials, artwork, books, diaries, artifacts, and the digital equivalents of all of these things. Materials in the Archives are often unique, specialized, or rare objects, meaning very few of them exist in the world, or they are the only ones of their kind.
  • Access to Materials: Since materials in archival collections are unique, the archivists in charge of caring for those materials strive to preserve them for use today and for future generations of researchers. Archival materials are not open to the public to browse and have specific guidelines for how people find and handle materials. For example, checking out a book from a library causes it to eventually wear out, and then the library buys a new copy of the same book. Checking out the handwritten diary of Elizabeth Koren from the Luther College Archives would cause the same physical deterioration, but the diary is irreplaceable.
  • Arrangement of Materials: Each single book in a library is usually cataloged and placed on the shelf with a call number. In the Archives, physical items are grouped into folders, which are put into boxes. In some cases, folders may have 100 or more items in them. The folder title is what is captured in our catalog, not the items. The intellectual arrangement of materials in the Archives is based on record groups and then series or individual collections. 

Finding Resources and Materials in the Luther College Archives

The first resource that you can use to find materials in the Luther College Archives is our catalog called Nordic.

Like the library's catalog, Nordic will allow you to search the Archives’ holdings by keyword, subject, creator, etc. The search results will tell you whether or not we have materials relating to that keyword. It’s important to understand that, like a library catalog, this will give you details and descriptions (called a Finding Aid) of the holdings, not actual digitized copies of the holdings. (See an example of a Finding Aid.

If you prefer a one-on-one approach, or if you’re having trouble finding materials online, please contact the Archives staff. Often, we can direct you to some known collections or can even help refine your research topic. 

[Read more: Digital Resources

Accessing Archival Materials

Once you have found materials that you’re interested in researching, the next step is to visit the Archives Reading Room, located on the upper floor of Preus Library. Scheduling an appointment is a great way to ensure that your boxes and materials are ready as soon as you walk in the door. You can schedule an appointment by contacting staff directly ([email protected]), or by requesting a time through our catalog Nordic. 

[Read more: Visit the Archives

Restricted Access and Stipulations on Use

In certain instances, materials may be inaccessible, or may have stipulations on use and access. Often the finding aid will tell you whether or not there are any restrictions on use or access. Some reasons why there may be limited access are:

  • Copyright: A copyright holder has the right to control the use, reproduction, and distribution of those works, as well as the ability to benefit from works monetarily and otherwise. Archives must abide by these laws, which can be complex. Even if the Archives physically owns a particular document, we may not own the copyright. It’s important that you have a conversation with the archivist if you want to reproduce materials, especially for commercial purposes.
  • Restrictions: Restrictions come in many varieties, but they are generally legally related, classified, sensitive, or mandated by the government (i.e., FERPA).
  • Unprocessed collections: Some collections may contain materials that the archival staff has received, but has not yet examined, identified, and organized for researchers to use. The work that archivists do in preparing materials for research use is called processing and often, materials need to be processed before the public can use them. In some cases, the archives staff can make certain arrangements, so please contact us if you think this pertains to you.
  • Material condition: Sometimes, materials may simply be too fragile to be handled by researchers. Or, some materials may be in an obsolete format that cannot be readily accessed. In these cases, the archives staff can talk about alternatives with you.

Researching in the Reading Room

Here are some tips for your visit to research in the Reading room:

  • You can make copies using our copy machine at 10¢ a page. 
  • You can also scan .pdfs and .jpgs and email them to yourself for free. A full list of duplication fees are available here:
  • If you have questions, ask the staff. Often, answers to questions like “What does this letterhead mean?” or “Who was O. W. Qualley?” can give you a lot of extra information that you may not have previously known.
  • Understand how long it may take for you to go through archival materials. In some cases, going through a medium-sized box may take as little as 30 minutes or as long as two hours. Also, be sure to note that Archives staff are only open from 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Arriving at 4 p.m. to look through 3 boxes may not be the best plan.
  • Bide your time. Don’t rush through research because often you can miss things or handle materials roughly. The Archives will hold your boxes if you need to extend your research.
  • Take thorough citations. While you are working, make sure to take full citations for the materials you are viewing, including any unique identification assigned to the materials by the archives such as the call number, collection title, etc. If you need to go back and reference something in those materials again, or if another researcher is later trying to track your sources from a published work, this will help the archival staff locate the materials.
  • Point out corrections Mistakes or omissions sometimes occur in finding aids, websites, and descriptions of materials. If you, the researcher, notice some of these errors or are an expert in a particular area and can fill in some information gaps, point those out to the archival staff. If possible, cite another authoritative source to support your corrections.

The information on this page is adapted from “Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research” by Laura Schmidt, accessible at: