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Know Before You Go: Library Resources for Students Doing Research Abroad: Using Special Collections and Archives Abroad

A library guide to prepare students doing research and library research abroad or in a new country for the first time

Before You Go

Locating Materials
  • Consult World of Learning to learn about other archives, learned societies, libraries, museums, etc. in the country or vicinity you are going to visit.  You may locate other relevant material.
  • Consult bibliographies in books related to your project.
  • Consult experts on the subject to find out which repositories they used for their research.
  • Use one of the archive locators such as Archive Grid  that have listings and descriptions from thousands of archives, libraries, and museums around the world.
  • Check websites such as WorldCat (an online catalog of thousands of libraries around the world), NARA’s Access to Archival Databases, or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
  • Consults blogs like Fresh From the Archives to ask other researchers for tips about the archive or library you are visiting.
Policies and Procedures to Use Materials
  • Policies and procedures vary from one place to another. Check the website for specific details or contact the department of Special Collections or the Archives for information. Below are a few general guidelines.
  • You may need to present a “Letter of Introduction” to access research facilities, especially in foreign countries. This may be from your advisor, home institution, or from another source such as the American Historical Association.
  • You will need to present photo identification (depending on the location, a student id card may not be sufficient. Be sure to carry a government-issued id such as a driver’s license or passport). Some places may require additional documentation such as a current utility bill to prove residence.
  • No food, candy, gum, or drinks may be brought in.
  • No pens are permitted. These could cause irreparable damage to the materials.
Contacting Special Collections Departments and Archives 


  • Look for contact information on the website.
  • Email the collection or archive well in advance of your visit.
  • Contact the reference archivist or inquire if there is a particular staff member with expertise or familiarity with your research topic. He or she may be able to point you in the right direction or suggest other repositories with similar materials relevant to your research.
  • Plan to make contact well in advance of your planned visit especially for international departments of special collections or archives. It may take a few hours, a week, or longer before the materials you wish to consult will be available.
  • Make sure your correspondence is specific and concise. Making a vague inquiry about what they have may not get a response. Remember that this is your project, not theirs.
  • Describe concisely the purpose, background, and context of your project.
  • Be polite and professional whether over the phone, by letter, or email. Proofread all correspondence for grammatical and spelling errors. Thank the person for their time.
  • Ask if there is an entrance fee.
  • Confirm the days and hours you may access materials. Check for any special closures that could impact your planned visit.
  • Ask how to request materials. Is there a form that must be filled out in hard copy? is there an online request form? Can you make a request by email? So you need to make the request in writing and, if so, to whom?
  • Ask if there is wireless internet access.
  • Inquire as to how much time in advance you need to request your materials.
  • Ask if you can take in a phone or make photos of the materials.
  • Ask if you can take in a computer.
  • Inquire as to if there are copy or scanning services available, and if so, how much is charged for these services.
  • You may want to inquire whether the archives of special collections offers any type of funding support for visiting researchers.
Different Doings in Special Collections and Archives (compared to libraries)
  • Users must register upon arrival.
  • No browsing shelves. Most libraries abroad have closed book stacks. You will need to request the materials you want to see and a staff member will bring them to you.
  • Generally you are allowed to use only item at a time. This may be a single book or single box of documents, or a single folder from a box.
  • Materials must be used in the reading room. You will not be able to check them out and take them home or to your office.
  • Reproductions might be allowed (photocopies, scans, or digital photographs) but policies vary. Be prepared to sit and transcribe the document if you are not allowed to make a copy.
  • Users are generally supervised by staff while using materials because many of them are unique or fragile.
  • Your materials, including notes, may be searched by staff upon leaving.
  • Photocopy what you can. Make sure the copies made for you ave citation details included so you can properly cit them. If taking digital photos, take shots of the books' title page, front matter, and endnotes in addition to the material you want.
Other considerations
  • Look into what type of accommodations (if you are planning to be there more than one day), restaurants, and transportation are available.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected. This could include running across something interesting in the materials your are using, being shown other potentially useful materials in the collection by the curator or archivist, needing more time to read the documents because the handwriting or language is difficult to read, needing to take time to verify information, general fatigue, or not planning enough time in the first place.

Things to Bring

  • Yale ID card
  • "Government-sponsored" ID (Passport, Driver's License, etc.)
  • Take a couple of extra passport-sized  photos as some foreign libraries and archives require these from overseas visitors.
  • Take business cards (if you have them) and hand them out liberally to the people who help you.
Proof of Need
  • You may be required to bring a letter on University letterhead or other documentation from Yale University Library
  • You may need a letter from the program coordinator or your thesis advisor (on University letterhead)
  • A prepared statement about your research
Technology and Such
  • Bring two or more sharpened pencils and paper pads.  You never know if your computer will be allow in the archive.
  • Carry a short ethernet cable as not all archives have public wi-fi for researchers, but may have an ethernet cable.  Don't assume your 4G wireless connection will work in an archive located in a basement of a large concrete building.
  • Bring a sweater or light jacket.  Some archives are kept purposely cool.

While Onsite

Challenges You May Encounter
  • Language – What language is the material in? Can you read and understand that language?
  • Handwriting – Can you read the handwriting? Some documents are written in handwriting that is not used today and require specialized training (palaeography) to read them.
  • Conventions – Documents often were written using conventions particular to their time period. These include things such as abbreviations, different currencies, different dating practices, different weights and measures, and words no longer in use.
  • Terminology – Archives and special collections use some specialized terms to describe the materials. Be familiar with those relevant to the time period and type of document you will be using.
  • Many libraries abroad may not have online catalogs, card catalogs or reference services.
Things To Do and Not To Do
  • Wash your hands so that they are clean before beginning work.
  • Handle materials carefully. Some repositories may ask you to wear gloves that they will provide to protect objects, especially photographs.
  • Use foam supports to cradle books with delicate bindings when asked.
  • Do not write on the materials.
  • Do not lick your fingers to flip pages.
  • Maintain the original order of the materials you are using. For example, do not pull out folders from various places in the archival box and put them together in the front of the box because those are the ones you want to use first. Keeping the materials in the original order is important. When they are not in their original order, it could lead to the archival staff assuming the materials are missing or could inconvenience future researchers who cannot find the materials in the order specified by the finding aid.
  • Write down the the full bibliographic citation and location of the materials you are using. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to cite something months later only to realize you don’t know where the information came from.
Things to Be Aware of 
  • Copyright – It is your responsibility to find out who holds the copyright for the material you are using if you plan to cite from or publish them.
  • Restrictions – Some materials may have restrictions governing their use set by the donor, laws, or other legislation.

Resources and Reference Tools for Working with Archives