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Citing Archival Resources

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Once you have determined which materials are relevant to your research, you will need to know how to reference them properly in your paper or project. Citation is one important challenge you must face when working with archives. Because archivists strive to preserve the unique order of collections when they are donated, universal guidelines for citing archival sources have not been established. However, we suggest the following methods based on best scholarly practices.

How to Cite Archival Materials

You have two viable options for citing archival sources.

  1. Check the archives website or contact them for a preferred citation.
  2. Use the adapted MLA citation we propose below.

If you choose Option 1, first check the website of the library or archival system, which may contain guidelines, or LibGuides, for referencing their artifacts. Here's an example of a Purdue University LibGuide.

You may also call or email the archival staff to obtain or ask questions about preferred citation practices.

If you choose Option 2, you will need to adapt the MLA citation format to meet your needs. To start, refer to the MLA citation practices most relevant to the particular genre of your materials. For example, the most recent MLA handbook will contain citation guidelines for comic books, film strips, commercials, photographs, etc. Next, include as much detail as possible to help a fellow researcher locate your artifact in a given archive. Depending on the system in place, you should refer to box numbers, folders, collections, archives name, institutional affiliation and location. Since archives are dynamic in the sense that collections may be sold, donated to another archives, reorganized and in extreme cases damaged or lost, you should also include the date accessed.

The following example is based on a combination of MLA citation practices and the Purdue LibGuide:

Genre-appropriate MLA Citation. Box number, Folder number. Unique identifier and collection name. Archives name, Institutional affiliation, Location. Date accessed.

Summers, Clara. Letter to Steven Summers. 29 June 1942. Box 1, Folder 1. MSP 94 Steven and Clara Summers papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN. 20 May 2013.

While these two citation options are recommended, you should consult with your publisher or instructor to determine what information they value most in your citation.