Archival and manuscript materials provide researchers access to such important historical materials as primary accounts of events, original documents, and contemporary descriptions of significant cultural trends and movements. These documents add authority or interest to general research; those working on Master’s theses or Doctoral dissertations must often identify primary source materials required for their area of study and then locate those materials effectively. In this age of advanced technology, many researchers are surprised to discover that only a tiny portion of manuscript and archival materials are represented electronically on the web. Often scarce or unique, costly, difficult to describe and digitize, and perhaps fragile, these materials are generally held in the special collections and archives of libraries and universities and in historical societies, museums, or research centers. Access to them is typically governed by policies that protect the materials, respect legal restrictions, and honor institututional agreements with donors.

Most institutions are simplifying access to materials and making descriptive information about their collections (“finding aids”) available to researchers via the World Wide Web. Most archives, special collections, and reserch centers, whether located within a university or another research institution, have some form of web presence at this time. It is therefore always wise to conduct a search using a major search engine, such as Google, to locate manuscript collections at specific institutions. However, the level of descriptive information available on the web varies with each institution and each collection: a few provide digital images of selected archival materials; some provide full access to finding aids in html or pdf formats; while others provide only cursory information about collection contents and general collection strengths.

This guide is an introduction to conducting historical research on a local and national level. It focuses primarily on indexes that help to locate materials but includes information about locally available resources; resources for fully digitized material; useful microforms, books and journals; and limited information about copyright and use permissions.

The Critical Thinking Website provides a large number of examples and exercises related to formulating good research questions. This page may be particularly usefu.  If you need to know about tools for digital research, you may find the Digital Research Tools Wiki extremely helpful.


Locally Available Primary Sources. Vast numbers of varied primary source materials are available in Iowa City or within a short drive of Iowa City. The following local resources may prove useful in research; not surprisingly, they are particularly rich in documentation for Iowa cultural, social, and political history.

UI Libraries, Special Collections & University Archives Department. Main Library, Third Floor. Information about the University’s 250,000 rare books and 15,000 feet of manuscripts; access and reference services; links to the Libraries’ online catalog and other resources.

UI Libraries, Iowa Women’s Archives. Main Library, Third Floor. Manuscripts and archival materials on women born or living in the state of Iowa. Website includes subject guides, finding aids, access to reference services; links to other women’s collections on the web.

Books at Iowa. Digitized articles about University of Iowa book and manuscript collections published 1964-1990.

Index to UI Libraries Media Services Microform Collections. Lists about 250 microform collections, some with guides that describe the collection in substantial detail.

State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa Avenue at Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Iowa. Research centers located in Iowa City and Des Moines provide access to primary source materials, including printed ephemera, specifically related to Iowa.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. West Branch, Iowa. Holds the papers of Herbert Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover, and over 150 other manuscript collections.

UI Libraries, University Archives. Main Library, Third Floor. Access to the historical record of the University of Iowa, from its founding to the present day.

National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 25,000 item research collection documenting Czech and Slovak history and U.S. emmigration.

Other UI Research Collections: Old Capitol Museum, Natural History Museum, Paleontology Repository, State Archaeologist, Art Museum, Medical Museum, Institute of Hydraulic Research, College of Pharmacy Collection, Iowa Hawkeyes Collection.

PRIMARY SOURCES ONLINE: digitized primary resource materials.

The Library of Congress: American Memory Collections. 7 million digital objects from more than 100 U.S. historical and cultural collections. UIowa’s Traveling Culture site is one of these collections: 30,000 images of brochures advertising Chautauqua performers, 1902-1932.

Making of America. Joint project of the University of Michigan and Cornell University to create a digital library of 19th century American social history: 10,000 books and 50,000 magazine articles (over 900,000 pages) with strengths in education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. or

American Periodical Series Online 1740-1900. Full text of over 1,100 periodicals that began publishing between 1740 and 1900, including special interest and general magazines, literary and professional journals, children’s and women’s magazines, and many other historically-significant periodicals. UI access only. APS

Newspapers online in full text include: The Times (London), 1785-1985 (UI access only); New York Times, 1851- present (UI access only); Brooklyn Eagle, 1841-1902.

Iowa Digital Library A rapidly growing collection of digital collections assembled by The University of Iowa Libraries.

Iowa Digital Heritage Project. Digital objects from many Iowa repositories.

JSTOR. Subscription database with full-text articles from major scholarly journals in business, science, and the humanities, many of which go back to 1800s. Content of journals published in the most recent 2-5 years are not available in this database. UI access only.

INDEXES TO PRIMARY SOURCES: descriptions of collections and often links to finding aids which contain detailed information about collections. Some indexes may lead to selected digitized material, but it is more common to find only collection-level descriptions.

United States Repositories

Archives Finder. Searchable database of collections at 5,000 U.S. repositories plus additional repositories in the U.K and Ireland. Search by keyword in collection finding aids or by repository. Includes links to online finding aids when available. UI access only.

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). Searchable database of U.S. manuscript collections reported to the Library of Congress. Records include descriptions and location of the collection, online access if available, and other information. Less friendly than Archives Finder but highly complementary.

Directory of Corporate Archives in the US and Canada. Online directory from the Society of American Archivists Business Archives Section. Lists corporate archives by name, geographically, and by the name of archivist. No search function but an alphabetical list allows you to find the archives of a particular company. Updated 2003.

Encoded Archival Description (EAD) Sites Annotated. Standards that enable institutions to provide coded searchable finding aids via the web. This list of institutions that provide EAD-encoded finding aids can be useful.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA provides information on genealogy, federal documents, and much more. Online exhibits enhance the site. The Research Catalog provides information about NARA holdings throughout the country.; NARA Archival Research Catalog Guide to Federal Records in the Archives of the United States.  See also Microform Sets below.

Ready Net Go! Archival Internet Resources. An archival “meta index,” or index of major indexes, lists, and databases of archival resources.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Washington: Federal Register Division, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration.

Repositories of Primary Sources (University of Idaho). Links to 4800 institutional websites, U.S. and international, describing special collections holdings. Lists arranged by country, region, state, and general.

Smithsonian Institution. Libraries and Archives site provides links to many Smithsonian library resources: See also see the Smithsonian Museums and Research Centers website.

State Historical Societies and Archives. Separate pages with links to the historical societies and archives of many states in the U.S. or Also useful is the site of the Council of State Archivists:

International Repositories

WorldCat/FirstSearch OCLC. Records for manuscripts, monographs, and all varieties of media. Search function can be limited to manuscripts. Cataloged manuscripts and manuscript collections are included; records provide information about the institution at which they are located.  Now harvests CAMIO (Collection of Museum Images Online), CONTENT dm sites, and ArchiveGrid database, and OAIster IOpen Archives Initiative): 20 million digital objects gathered from from 1100 institutions and indexed. Subscription database available to UI users only.

The [U.K.] National Archives: searchable access to 7.5 million archival sources from 383 records offices as well as archive collections held in UK universities, colleges and other repositories.

Historical Research in Europe: A Guide to Archives and Libraries. Interactive database of print and online resources for archives and libraries in Western Europe. Search by keyword or subject headings specific to the database. Within subjects, individual records include the title, subject, creator, and a URL for online resources.

Location Register of 20th Century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters. University of Reading site offers author, title, and keyword searching to locate all genres of 20th century literary manuscripts held in UK libraries of all sizes. Additional information about holdings in U.S. libraries is available only in a print source: see also book resources

Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. Resource for searching for manuscript repositories in Britain, including the National Register of Archives and the Manorial Documents Register.

UNESCO: UNESCO Archives Portal. Links to archives worldwide, including primary sources and finding aids on line, preservation and conservation information, associations, and much more. Portal is searchable by key word.

MICROFORM SETS. The University of Iowa Libraries holds in microformat (principally microfilm and microfiche) a large amount of material of potential use to historical researchers. Vast microfiche sets published by the U.S. Government Printing Office are cost-effective public access to important materials. While viewing library materials in microformat is not as pleasant as reading a printed volume, today’s reader/printers and microform digitizers make the researcher’s task easier: several microform readers are coupled to computers that allow the user to digitize scanned images and copy them to CDs, DVDs, or USB memory sticks.

Most microform holdings in the UI Libraries are housed in the Media Services area of Main Library, although the Government Publications collection has substantial holdings, as do many of the branch libraries. Library staff have prepared a number of finding aids to assist researchers in locating historically significant microform sets.

  • Microform Sets for Historical Research. A list of the “large” history-related microform sets in the UI Libraries and the Law Library, arranged in broad subject categories. Many of the sets consist of primary historical materials: manuscript collections, collections of old books, long runs of newspapers. Current as of April 1992.
  • Index to Microform Collection Guides. An annotated list compiled in 1999 of Media Service’s nearly 250 microform collections which are accompanied by printed user guides. This provides more detailed information on each collection than do InfoHawk records. Online databases to which the library subscribes increasingly assist in locating microform segments.
  • Evans Digital Collection (Early American Imprints, 1639-1800). Scanned images from the Early American Imprints microfiche. Individual catalog records for microfiche appear in the library catalog and the microfiche are housed in Media Services. Search the Evans Digital Collection using the microfiche numbers to find the scanned equivalents to the microfiche. The growing Newsbank collections, Archive of Americana, also includes a number of other important, massive, collections: American newspapers, broadsides, state papers, the Congressional Serial set from 1817-1980, and the Serial Set Maps.
  • NIDS (National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United States). Started in 1984 and partially available via Archives Finder, this resource provides finding aids for selected collections in the United States (Microfiche 800). Four parts: I: Federal Records; II: Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress; III: State Archives, Libraries and Historical Societies; and IV: Academic and Research Libraries and Other Repositories. Also available for the UK (Not in UI Holdings)

In addition to the microform sets held at the UI Libraries and the Law Library, members of the University of Iowa community have access to the collections of the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) in Chicago. Students, faculty and other researchers may visit CRL’s reading room to use Center materials or request materials via interlibrary loan. CRL has an extensive microform collection, particularly rare and foreign periodicals and dissertations, accessible through its online catalog.

JOURNALS specific to archives and general history journals. All are indexed in major subject indexes. History journals often contain articles about specific archival collections: look carefully at footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies! Bound volumes of all titles listed below are located in the Serials area of Main Library; many are available on-line. Check InfoHawk for holdings information.

American Archivist. Published by the Society of American Archivists.

American Heritage. Some volumes also available on microfilm: MAIN MEDIA SERVICES Film 27928.

American Historical Review.  Some volumes available on microfilm: MAIN MEDIA SERVICES Film 2319. Also available in electronic format: Back issues via JSTOR.

American History.

Annals of Iowa. Also available in GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS Dept 17-C968H 10 and on microfilm.

Archival Issues. Published by the Midwest Archives Conference.

Civilization: the Magazine of the Library of Congress.

RESOURCES AVAILABLE IN BOOK FORMAT: a selected list of published resources focused on books that indicate the locations of manuscript repositories rather than on descriptive works about individual collections. There are a great number of published guides about specific collections that can be found in InfoHawk by searching with a topical keyword or subject; many of these are also now available on the web.

Bedi, Joyce. Sources in electrical history: archives and manuscript collections in U.S. repositories. [New York?]: Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 1989. MAIN Z5832.B43 1989.

—-. Sources in electrical history 2: Oral history collections in U.S. repositories. [New York?]: Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 1992. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS Reference Z5832 .S68 1992

British Library. The British Library catalogue of additions to the manuscripts: the Yelverton manuscripts: additional manuscripts 48000-48196. London: British Library, 1994. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS Reference Z6616.Y45 B74 1994.

Calkin, Homer L. Methodist archival and manuscript collections. Compiled by Homer L. Calkin for the World Methodist Historical Society. [S.l.: s.n.], 1982-. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS xZ6611.M55 C2

A Guide to research collections of former members of the United States House of Representatives, 1789-1987 / prepared under the direction of the Office for the Bicentennial of the United States, House of Representatives; Cynthia Pease Miller, editor-in-chief. Washington DC: The Office, 1988. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS and MAIN Reference CD3043.G84 1988; GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS Microfiche Y 1.1/7:100-171; LAW Documents Collection Y 1.1/2: Serial 13874 Building Loan

Hall, Marie Boas. The library and archives of the Royal Society, 1660-1990. London: Royal Society, 1992. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS x-Collection Z792.R76 H344 1992

Hinding, Andrea. Women’s history sources: a guide to archives and manuscript collections in the United States. New York: Bowker, c1979. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS Reference FOLIO Z7964.U49 H56

Hope, Anne. Guide to German historical sources in North American libraries and archives. Washington, DC: German Historical Institute, 1991. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS Reference 94-546

Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. London: The British Library, 1995. MAIN REFERENCE Collection FOLIO Z6611.L7 L62 1995.

Location Register of Twentieth-century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters: a Union List. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1988. MAIN Oversize FOLIO Z6611.L7 L63 1988

Niles’ register [computer file]: cumulative index to U.S. and world history for the period 1811-1849 / edited by W.H. Earle. Malvern, PA: Accessible Archives, c1995 et seq. A comprehensive index to the Niles’ Register, with over 380,000 references, noted by volume and page number. MAIN REFERENCE Collection Software 733 CD-ROM. NOTE: in Reference Electronic Resources.

Paul, Karen Dawley. Guide to research collections of former United States senators, 1789-1995: a listing of archival repositories housing the papers of former senators, related collections, and oral history interviews. Washington: GPO: For sale by the U.S. GPO, Supt. of Docs., 1995. GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS Microfiche Y 1.1/3: 103-35; SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, IOWA WOMEN’S ARCHIVES, and MAIN REFERENCE Collection CD3043 .P37 1995


Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources (UCLA Libraries).

Evaluating Web Resources (Widener University Libraries)


For a discussion of copyright, see the statement brought to the attention of UI Special Collections readers. The Fair Use doctrine protects limited use of copyrighted materials for educational and research purposed without permission from a copyright holder. Both copyright and fair use must be analyzed under the following four-part test. The test is necessarily fact (or instance) dependent. Two reasonable people may apply the tests to the same facts and reach opposite conclusions. Even if it determines that a copyright has been infringed, however, a court may refuse to award damages if the infringer reasonably believed that the use was fair and/or can demonstrate reasonable attempts to secure permissions.

The Fair Use Test

  • What is the character of the use? Educational, nonprofit, and personal use is favored for fair use, while commercial use is disfavored. However, the fact that a use is educational or nonprofit in nature does not in and of itself mean the use is necessarily fair: it may be more important to weigh whether the use is “transformative” or not. A use is transformative if it builds upon, criticizes, comments on, parodies or otherwise adds something new to the original work. Put another way, the question is whether the new use, in the words of the Supreme Court, merely “supercedes the objects of the original, or instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character.”
  • What is the nature of the work to be used? Use of a work that is factual in nature (e.g., a scholarly monograph) weighs toward a finding of fair use. Use of imaginative works (e.g., a novel, poem, photograph, or video) is more likely to require permission.
  • What is the amount and substantiality of the portion to be used? Using only a small portion of a copyrighted work tips towards fair use, while using a large portion indicates a need for permission. Be careful with this factor, however; courts have held that copying as little as 5% of a book into a coursepack exceeded fair use.
  • Will the use negatively affect the value of the copyrighted material? If a work is available for purchase or license from the copyright owner, copying all or a significant portion of the work (in lieu of purchasing or licensing a sufficient number of “authorized” copies) would likely be unfair. If only a small portion of a work is to be copied, and one would likely forego using the portion if permission were required, then the balance tips towards fair use.

Copyright and Fair Use Overview (Stanford University Libraries):

The University of Minnesota Copyright and Fair Use Site:

The TEACH Act:

United States Copyright Office:

WATCH: Writers, Artists and Their Copyright Holders: a database of known executors, mainly for literary authors and artists, maintained by Reading University and the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas:

When Work has Passed into the Public Domain: a chart developed by Lolly Gasaway, University of North Carolina, particularly useful in determining when published materials can be freely reprinted:

When Works Pass into the Public Domain in the United States: a chart developed by Peter Hirtle, Cornell University, particularly useful in determining when unpublished materials are in the public doman.


Interlibrary Loan (Main Library):

Interlibrary Loan (Hardin Library):

INSTRUCTION ON HISTORICAL RESEARCH. A useful (but dated: it was last revised in 2002) resource for reviewing strategies for searching primary source materials is the Yale Online Tutorial. Much of the specific information information is now inaccurate as systems, policies, and resources have changed, but a quick browse may bring to mind fresh ways of addressing your research topic.

Compiled in 2003-2004 by Sandy Ballasch, Head of Access Services; Amy Cooper Cary, Assistant Head, Special Collections; Steve Ostrem, Reference Librarian; and since maintained by others.