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Primary Source Research in Special Collections and Archives

What are archival collections?

Archival collections refer to personal papers (also called manuscript collections) and organizational records.

Personal papers are composed of materials made by a person or family. They can come in digital and analog formats and include correspondence, personal files, photographs, diaries, and more.

How do I search for archival material?

VCU Libraries' archival collections are searchable through ArchivesSpace or VCU Libraries search. Researchers may also use Archival Resources of the Virginias (ARVAS) to find listings of VCU's archival collections.

Both ArchivesSpace and Virginia Heritage directly link to our collection guides (also known as finding aids). VCU Libraries search records provides secondary links to collection guides. 

If you are looking for digitized materials from Special Collections and Archives, please visit VCU Libraries Digital Collections.

Other Useful Research Guides

If you are looking for more information on the history of VCU, please visit these research guides:


If you would like more information on the architectural history of Richmond, this guide may be useful.

How to read collection guides

A collection guide or finding aid gives background and content information about an archival collection. Often, a collection guide will offer:

  • Biographical information about the person, family, or organization associated with the collection
  • The topical scope of the contents within the collection
  • The date range or estimated date range of the materials held in the collection
  • An inventory and/or organizational list of materials held in the collection - note that many inventories do not describe individual items within a collection but describe topical groupings of materials.
  • The physical extent or the collections (often presented in linear inches or feet)
  • Any restrictions on accessing or using the collection materials

Some collection guides will provide an extensive amount of information about the collection while others might provide a minimal amount. This depends on what information about the people, family, or organizations was available at the time the materials were added to the collection.

How to cite archival collections

Please note, it is up to the researcher to ensure adherence to all copyright guidelines and laws when reproducing or using materials from Special Collections and Archives.

There are multiple ways to cite archival collections and each repository generally has a preferred way of citing materials. If possible, it is best to ask the specific repository how they would like their materials cited.

The collection guide should give you most of the information you need to cite materials. At VCU we recommend this format:

Title of collection, date or date span of collection, collection number, Special Collections and Archives, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, Richmond VA.

An example of this format looks like this:

Joan Girone papers, 1970-2012, Collection M284, Special Collections and Archives, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, Richmond, VA.