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Visiting libraries & archives in the United States for research in US history: Home

Guidance and tips for when travelling to libraries and archives in the US to conduct primary source research for US history

Subject Librarian

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Bethan Davies
Vere Harmsworth Library,
Rothermere American Institute,
1a South Parks Road,
Oxford, OX1 3UB
01865 282701
Subjects: American Studies

Purpose of this guide

This guide is intended for students and researchers planning on visiting archival and research libraries in the United States. 

Use this guide to find out about key information for planning research visits to the United States, including the major research collections, general guidance on using American research facilities and other useful tips. 


About this guide

This guide is designed to provide some guidance and useful tips for Oxford students and researchers planning to travel to conduct research in libraries and archives in the United States.

Much of the advice provided in this guide was gleaned from a trip to various US libraries and archives in September 2011. Things may have changed, so always check with the institution you are planning on visiting in advance of your trip!

The guide covers various different types of libraries and archives: the national institutions of the Library of Congress and National Archives; presidential libraries; state libraries, archives and historical associations, and other major research libraries. It is not designed to be comprehensive, but to provide some helpful pointers particularly for those who have not undertaken research trips to the United States before.

If you have further questions either about visiting American archives or about research for American history and politics more generally, please contact the VHL Librarian, Bethan Davies: 

Top Tips

1. Find out which library or institution holds the papers you need. Sounds obvious, but things are not always where you expect them to be. This is particularly true of major instutitutions which may have multiple locations. There are various tools you can use to locate archival collections (see below), and be careful to check details of where any given collection may be found and consulted on the website or catalogue for the institution concerned before you book your trip.

2. Find out what is available online or in Oxford. Most libraries and archives in the United States are engaged in digitisation work to a greater or lesser extent. Make the most of your time in the US by checking first what you can get from home via their online collections. Their website is the best place to start, but also check portals such as the Hathi Trust or state digital libraries (some of which can be found via the VHL diigo page) as well as sites such as American Memory or the Flickr Commons. Not all libraries make their digitised materials available freely however; check the US History Sources guide to find details of primary sources available through the A-Z listing or in the VHL's collections.

3. Check the online finding aids or catalogues for the relevant library or archive BUT be aware that not all archival collections or finding aids are fully catalogued online. For many archival collections you will only be able to discover what is actually there by using printed finding aids or catalogues in the library itself, and often not even those will have full details down to the item level. However, for those that are online already you can save yourself time by doing your searching before you travel.

4 (and most importantly!). Contact the library or archive in advance of your visit. There are several reasons to get in touch before you go, rather than just turn up and expect to be able to dive straight into the research:

  • To find out more about the collections, particularly uncatalogued or partially catalogued archives: Staff at the library or archive will know the most about their collections and will be able to tell you more about the archives than you may be able to find out yourself from their website or online catalogue. They may also be able to point you in the direction of useful material you may not have discovered otherwise.
  • To find out what you need to do to get access: It's worth knowing in advance what procedures they have in place for registering new researchers, particularly in terms of what you need to bring with you (eg passport, supporting letter from a supervisor, proof of academic status). Don't be one of the people who treks out to the National Archives II at College Park, MD only to be turned away because you left your passport in your hotel safe. Also, and related, find out what restrictions they may have on what you can bring with you into the reading rooms - can you bring your laptop or digital camera, for example.
  • To find out how long it takes to get material brought up to the reading room and whether you can or should order material in advance: A lot of material is kept offsite, sometimes at quite some distance, and can take hours or even days to be fetched once requested. You may or may not be able to put in requests before you arrive, especially if you need to register as a reader first, but it's worth finding out in case you can. And if you can't, then at least you can plan for the time you will need to wait.

Where to go

The following links and guides are useful tools for locating archival collections in various institutions in the United States. See the separate US History Sources guide for information on locating archival collections relating to the United States in the UK.

Funding your trip

Many research libraries and institutions in the United States offer scholarships and grants to researchers coming to use their collections, particularly if you are planning on a longer visit. It's always worth checking the website of the relevant library or archive to find out, though be aware that in most cases you have to apply for this quite some time in advance. In most cases these scholarships are only available to postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers. Some key scholarships and grants for major libraries are listed below.

You may also be able to secure funding from your college, and the Rothermere American Institute offers several travel grants to undergraduate and graduate students each year.