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Digital Archives Materials

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Many archives have collections that are available for use in a digital format. These may be called e-archives or digital archives. The digital materials may include photographs, documents, and maps, as well as “born-digitally” materials, such as websites and applications. Many archives also make these digital materials available through their websites.

Digital archives can be convenient research tools because they provide researchers with content from a collection without the requiring the researcher to physically be in the archives reading room. When using digital archives in your research, you may use the following tips as a guide:

  • If the digital archives are available online through the archives website, begin by orienting yourself to their content. Digital archives often provide access to many different kinds of collections. In order to determine if the digital archives have materials relevant to your research question, you should attempt to locate a description of each collection. Although some archives may be physically large, they may only have a small portion of their materials available digitally. Therefore, it is important to determine which collections are available digitally. This will help you determine if the digital archives will be useful for your research.
  • Be aware of copyright policy for each item in the collection. Because digital archives are often available online, it is easier for researchers to make copies of the materials. However, before you make copies, you should be aware of the copyright policy of digital materials. Archives may or may not have copyright over the materials they make available digitally. In some cases, the archives may only have permission from the copyright holder to make the materials available digitally; the archives may not hold the copyright for the materials themselves. Many archives will provide copyright information online about digital collection items. If you are unsure about the copyright use policy on a particular item, contact the digital archivist at the archives.
  • Be patient with using digital materials, as some interfaces may be challenging or slow. Digital archives aim to provide researchers with access to archival materials that, at times, can use a large amount of computer memory. The size of the files in a digital archives often reflect the fact that the digital archivists and staff members have attempted to provide scans of materials at a high resolution, which gives the researcher a more realistic experience in viewing the collection. However, the large file size may also slow down the experience of viewing the collection. Furthermore, some digital archives interfaces may be difficult to navigate. Digital archivists are usually available at the archives and are happy to assist you if you have questions. Send them an email or give them a call.
  • Use the archives’ preferred citation for digital collections. If the archives does not specify a preferred citation, use the one below. Citing digital items is sometimes challenging because the web address for a particular item may change over time. In order to provide a more stable reference point for digital items, Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) and Archival Resource Keys (ARK) were developed. DOIs and ARKs are unique strings of numbers, letters, and symbols that link to a single digital object or item. A DOI or ARK does not change even if the web address for an item does change. Some digital archives use a DOI or ARK number to link to specific items in their collections.

Some archives also have their own system of assigning unique identifying numbers for digital items. If a digital item has a unique number assigned to it, you should include it as the first element in your citation. This should be followed by the collection’s unique identifier and collection name. Then include the archives name, its institutional affiliation, and location. Finally include digital reference information: the DOI, if available; a general URL for the archives, such as, and a date accessed. Below is a model along with an example from Purdue University’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections:

Genre-appropriate MLA Citation. Unique item number. Collection unique identifier and collection name. Archive name, Institutional affiliation, Location. DOI. General URL, Date accessed.

Earhart, Amelia. Letter to George Palmer Putnam. 1937. MS. b4f49i1. The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. ark:/34231/c6kh0k90., 28 July 2013.