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Art & Architecture: Archives & Primary Sources

This guide offers resources and starting points for researchers in art history, digital scholarship, and visual culture.

Tips: Preparing to Use Archival & Special Collections

Art archives contain diverse holdings of primary source materials, from recorded oral histories, diaries, scrapbooks, and sketchbooks of artists; to business and financial records of art galleries, universities, museums, and associations.  You’ll find a variety of media too, including everything from printed materials, to audio and video recordings, and sometimes the materials that artists have used to create art works. 

Many archives have made digital copies of portions of their collections available online, however, you may have a need at some point to visit a collection in person.  Here are a few tips for visiting and researching with archival collections:

  1. Visit the website for the collection you plan to visit.  Check for any special instructions ahead of your visit. Some institutions require visitors to make an appointment in advance.
  2. Since these types of collections contain rare and invaluable materials, visitors may have to first register before using the collection. Be prepared and bring with you a valid, unexpired government issued photo ID such as a Driver's License, Passport, or University/College ID.
  3. You might also consider bringing along a laptop for taking notes and a camera for photographing non-restricted materials.
  4. If you plan to do a lot of research using archival collections, get to know the archivists, librarians, and other staff who work with these collections every day. Oftentimes, their own knowledge of the collections is quite vast.  

Searching the UNC Catalog

When you search the library catalog, begin with a simple keyword search to identify one or more relevant resources. Keyword terms used to find primary sources can include:

Personal narratives













Archival Resources

Vertical files





Once you identify appropriate items, Library of Congress (LC) Subject Headings can be used to narrow your search and link you to similar resources with the same subject heading. Subject headings are found under the "Subjects" or "Full Record" tabs.

For example, a search conducted using a LC subject heading is: artists -- diaries

Digital Collections - Texts, Images, Media

Art Archives - Notable Collections

Many art institutions also keep records documenting museum, gallery, and foundation histories that are rich in artists' archives and that document the history of collecting.  Some institutions have made portions of their institutional archives available on their websites.  If you can't find any information online, try contacting the institution's library, registrar, or curatorial offices for more information.  Here are examples of notable art institution archives:

Online Guides to Archives and Manuscripts Collections

Many archival institutions put finding aids, or guides to their collections on the web. They also may have some of their collections digitized, and available online.

The Fuji River in the Snow

An elongated color woodblock print depicting a river with two boats in the lower portion of the composition. The flowing blue river is surrounded by trees and snow-covered hills. In the upper portion of the print, tall white mountains are depicted against a grey sky.

Utagawa Hiroshige, The Fuji River in the Snow, 1841, color woodblock print, Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art