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Modern Congressional and Political Papers Collection

General guidance for archival research

undefinedArchives exist to preserve and provide access to historic resources. Because they are unique and rare, archival materials do not circulate like other library resources. To get started with archives, it helps to understand how archives function, how to identify and evaluate appropriate archives for your project, and how to conduct research in the archives. Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, a publication from the Society of American Archivists, covers these topics, as well as planning a visit to the archives, requesting materials remotely, and navigating copyright and restrictions. 

Research projects are unique, but the process is essentially the same regardless of the type of archives you use. First, develop your research question and define your needs. Then conduct secondary research to inform your understanding of your topic and time period. Think about the sources you hope to find in the archives, and then identify repositories and collections with promising materials. Browse and search collection finding aids, and contact the archivist(s) at the repository. When you're ready, visit the repository to use the collection(s). Repeat steps as necessary and be prepared to revise your research question as you uncover surprising and thought-provoking new sources! 

Finding congressional archives

Personal Papers of the Members of Congress

The records of Members are located in repositories throughout the country. Below is a list of resources for locating repositories and collections:

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

On a Member's profile page, there is a link for “Research Collections." This will list repositories containing primary collections of papers.  

Association of Centers for the Study of Congress member directory

Member institutions of the ACSC often hold primary collections of personal papers. Contact information is listed for each institution. 

Center for Legislative Archives list of congressional collections

The Center for Legislative Archives maintains this index of archival repositories and congressional collections. This index is arranged by state thereunder the name of the holding institution or organization followed by the name of the member of Congress.

Congressional collections location list for Members of Congress from West Virginia

This list includes the locations of congressional collections for all those who represented West Virginia in Congress. Some collection locations are unknown. The list was created and is maintained by WVRHC staff. 

Guide to Research Collections of Former Members of the United States House of Representatives

The Guide includes the years 1789-1987 and is indexed alphabetically by Members' last names. It includes a list of repositories organized by state and a list of Members for whom collections could not be located. 

Guide to Research Collections of Former United States Senators

The Guide includes the years 1789-1995. It is a compilation of archival repositories housing the papers of former senators, related collections, and oral history interviews. It is available in print only.

ArchiveGrid

ArchiveGrid includes over 5 million records describing archival materials. You can search by collections, people, organizations, events, and more.

Social Networks and Archival Context

SNAC is a cooperative that brings together biographical and historical information about people, families, and organizations that created or are documented in historical resources and their connections to one another. Users can locate archival collections and related resources held at cultural heritage institutions around the world.

Official Records of the U.S. Congress

The Center for Legislative Archives, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, preserves and makes available to researchers the historical records of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

Using finding aids

Finding aids are documents that describe the contents of a collection, similar to the way a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. A finding aid provides an overview of a collection, shows the relationships between its component parts, and details location information. Sometimes a finding aid also describes how a collection was formed, how the archives acquired it, and how the archivist(s) processed the materials.

Many repositories provide access to finding aids online, but some repositories still only provide paper copies. A digital copy of a paper finding aid may be available upon request.

If you can't find what you're looking for, or require further assistance, contact the archivist who processed the collection. Often archival staff will be your best resource for finding appropriate primary sources. 

Below are some specific tips for using finding aids for the personal papers of Members of Congress: 

  1. Congressional collections are massive in size, so check in more than one place. For example, when researching a piece of legislation, the legislative files are an obvious place to begin. However, also review the press files where you can often find excellent summaries in memos, press releases, and newsletters. 
  2. Files may be categorized by the staffers' names who worked in the office. Acquaint yourself with the staff and their roles and responsibilities by using a source like the Congressional Yellow Book.
  3. Try multiple keywords and abbreviations when searching topics or names of organizations and committees. The files are often named by staff or the archivists who process the collection. For example, when searching for the "U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care," you could also locate sources by searching the committee by its colloquial name, the "Pepper Commission."

Researching in the archives

Conducting research in the archives can be both exciting and overwhelming. There are many procedures to learn for using archives, as well as strategies for reviewing materials and keeping track of sources. 

Procedures

Archives will often require you to register before using materials. You'll also need to store your belongings, usually in a locker or area provided to you. You'll be able to enter the reading room with only a notebook and pencil or a laptop computer. Using the finding aid information, or information gleaned from archives staff, you'll request materials. (Sometimes material requests must be placed ahead of time, so be sure to ask). Ask about rules regarding photographing or scanning materials. 

Strategies

Researchers have unique approaches to materials, note taking, and citation management while in the archives, but below are some general tips to make your first visit productive: 

  1. Keep track of your citations! You do not want to return to the archives in a year (or more) to search for the one document for which you didn't record a citation. Record citations in a notebook or with a citation manager, such as Zotero. It's a good idea to record the collection number and title, box number, folder number and title, document title and date (existing or derived), and the repository name and its location. 
  2. Some researchers take copious notes while others prefer to photograph or scan as many documents as possible. If the archives allows photographing and scanning of documents, set up a system for organizing and naming the files for easy access later. This may simply be naming digital folders the same title as the physical folders.
  3. However you decide to take notes and/or save materials for review later, back up your files often to an external device or the cloud. 

Researching remotely

Sometimes it's not possible to visit the archives in person. Reach out to the repository staff for help and make your request as specific as possible. If you have a simple reference request, an archivist may be able to find the information for you or scan and send a document. They may also point you to materials that are already available online. For a more complicated request, some repositories charge fees to conduct the research for you, or they can often provide a list of local researchers you can hire. 

Funding your research

Archival research can have big payoffs, but travel expenses can add up. Many archives and organizations offer grants to offset some of these costs. Below are some funding opportunities: 

WVU Libraries West Virginia & Regional History Center 

The WVRHC offers research grants in all fields, but research in congressional and political papers is currently a special topic of interest. Awards typically range from $500 to $1,500. 

Association of Centers for the Study of Congress

The ACSC offers research grants to individuals who conduct research in congressional papers. It annually awards a graduate student research grant up to $1,500. The organization also offers grants, up to $500, to individuals who conduct research in member institutions.