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Archives - What They Are and How to Use Them

This is a general guide to using archival materials - what they are, where to find them, how they are organized, and how to use them. For questions about using the ISU Special Collections and University Archives specifically, click the "questions" tab.

Digital Collections and Collection Descriptions

This section of the guide includes links to digital archives, as well as links to places where you can search collection descriptions. If a linked site has descriptions only, it will say "(descriptions only)."

Digital Collections contain digitized versions of original materials such as photographs, letters, diaries, etc. Some digital collections may also provide access to materials that are inherently in digital form such as old websites, email, etc.

Collection Descriptions (aka finding aids) are textual descriptions of collections, their contents, who created the materials, and where the collection is located. "Great Places to Start" (see box, this page) are suggested places to begin a search for collection descriptions.

Most archival materials have searchable descriptions, but only a small percentage of materials are available digitally. While searching digital collections provides immediate access for a few materials, searching collection descriptions finds significantly more materials, but you will need to contact and/or visit the archives to use the materials.

  • Digital/digitized collections = immediate virtual access to a little bit
  • Descriptions of off-line collections = in-person or archivist-assisted access to a lot

This is a listing of multi-repository digital archives collections. Some may include publications in addition to digitized archival materials. Single-institution sites have been excluded from the list.

These are US multi-state regional digital archives and collection descriptions.



South (Appalachian)

West (Inter-Mountain)

West (Northwest)

This is a partial list of digital archives and collection descriptions from around the world..

This is a partial list of multi-repository topical digital archives and collection descriptions. Most are based in the United States.

Cultural History

History of Science and Technology:

Labor History



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Special Collections & University Archives
403 Parks Library
701 Morrill Road
Iowa State University Library
Ames, IA 50011
515 294-6672