The University of Texas

How to Research

Monica Penick

School of Architecture PhD candidate Monica Penick conducts research in the Archive




Tips on Researching Primary Sources

Preliminary Research

Preliminary research will be your best investment in using an archive. You MUST consult secondary sources BEFORE considering primary sources. In fact many archives will only allow access after a research interview is conducted to review your previous research. Secondary (or published) sources include: books, articles, biographical sources, association directories, etc. Most of these secondary sources can be found in the Architecture and Planning Library. Become familiar with the chronology of the firm or architect's life, understand influences, clients, companions, and even where they traveled on vacation. Find out if there are other archives that have material on your topic (many collections are not comprehensive). Also, don't rule out picking up the phone - contacts are invaluable.

Using Primary Sources

Using primary sources will require an investment of time and a focused mind. Note the purpose of your visit and the questions you intend to answer. Rule out what isn't necessary- ex. don't ask to see ALL of the drawings for a project when you aren't really interested in the plumbing plans. This will save you time and also cut down on unnecessary handling of the material. Please note that most researchers take multiple appointments before finding what they are looking for. The first appointment usually involves researching the finding aid (inventory of the collection), noting boxes and folders of material you are interested in viewing. If you are interested in viewing drawings, a second appointment is usually necessary to allow the staff time to retrieve and prepare oversized materials and a viewing space.


Think of yourself as a detective unlocking a mystery. Know the nature of the beast- much of what you will find will be via the "back door method". For instance, you may be researching a project built in 1928. You may be happy to find that the architect commented heavily about this project in personal correspondence. So don't pass up the entry in the finding aid for "Personal Correspondence 1920-1930". While using the archive, learn to "read the landscape" of a collection- notice that suddenly drawings went from ink on linen tracing cloth to pencil on trace (reflection of "hard times"?), did travel influence style as shown in vacation photos? What books or material catalogues did they have in their own personal or firm libraries? What's missing from this collection and why?

Understand that you may have to consult another collection. Ex. you will find letters from Neutra in the Harwell Hamilton Harris collection because they worked together, you will also find information on Sullivan because Hamilton was considering writing a book on him. This all chimes back to doing good preliminary research.

Archives FYI

  • Repositories are generally made up of many different collections of material
  • An archive respects the provenance and original order of each collection
  • Trained staff process collections by rehousing material into archival quality storage, by arranging material if it has no predetermined order, and by describing material in a way that users may find it. This description is called a "Finding Aid".
  • Access to processed collections can be found through finding aids, registers, or inventories for each collection
  • An archive generally does not allow the public to view unprocessed collections
  • An archive never allows browsing of collection material
  • Trained staff perform preservation treatment on incoming collections including rehousing, dry cleaning, mending, and flattening
  • Collections are stored in environmentally monitored and secure locations. Reading rooms may be chilly so come prepared.
  • An archive may require appointments, allowing staff to treat and page material and monitor use
  • Most archives require an entrance interview and that secondary sources be consulted prior to using a collection
  • An archive generally does not allow their material to circulate, unless for exhibit
  • Copy work for material in an archive is generally discouraged. To ensure the material's preservation, copy work is usually produced by photographic means -no mechanical, chemical, or contact scanning processes are allowed. Although you may be charged to create a negative, they are always retained by an archive. On top of all production costs, copy work is usually also accompanied by a fee, making it quite an expensive endeavor.


Perry-Castañeda Library
101 East 21st St.
Austin, TX. 78713

Phone: (512) 495-4250

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