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Introduction to Archival Research at MSU Libraries

This guide has been designed to help researchers locate and access Archives & Special Collections materials at Mississippi State University Libraries.


Materials housed within the Division of Archives and Special Collections require special handling and care due to their rarity, fragility, and historical value. Our materials vary in condition, format, and scale, which can determine best practices for handling. The information in this guide is not meant to deter you from using our materials but rather is intended to show you how to handle these materials to ensure they are preserved for future generations.

Personal Care

Our hands produce sweat and oil that can be harmful to our materials. In addition, the various products we use in our daily care routines can also damage materials. Thus, it’s important to:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling materials. Your hands should be checked frequently for dirt, oil, and sweat and rewashed if necessary.
  • Avoid wearing lotions or using hand sanitizers while handling materials as their ingredients (e.g., oils and alcohols) can damage materials.
  • Avoid wearing perfumes, colognes, and other fragrances as these can cling to materials.
  • Be mindful of nail polishes as some colors may transfer to materials (e.g., colors such as red are particularly bad).
  • Be mindful of certain types of jewelry or clothing sleeves as these can sometimes catch on materials and cause damage.

General Handling Rules

General handling rules for all materials include:

  • Never have food, liquids, gum, or ink pens around materials. These items are strictly prohibited.
  • Keep your workspace clean and free of clutter and debris.
  • Handle materials as little as possible. Avoid the unnecessary lifting of materials or resting materials in areas other than tables (e.g., your lap).
  • Do not lean or write on top of materials.
  • Keep materials in order.
  • Ask for help when needed.
  • Take responsibility for the materials you are using. If you notice or cause damage, please let a staff member know so that we can give the material(s) appropriate treatment.


White cotton gloves are often associated with archives, but these are no longer recommended for handling archival materials. Cotton gloves are often thick making our hands more clumsy and less dexterous. Cotton gloves can also pick up dirt and debris that can be transferred to materials. Thus, clean hands are often the best option for handling archival materials. However, there are some exceptions. Nitrile gloves are recommended for handling the following materials: parchment, photographs, negatives, glass plate negatives, slides, delicate fabrics (e.g., silks), and artifacts.  

Transporting Materials

When transporting materials, keep the following in mind:

  • Plan ahead. Think about the equipment or manpower needed to transport materials.
  • Ask for help when necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask for help lifting heavy materials or opening doors.
  • Keep materials as flat as possible during transport. Avoid overfilling carts.

Special Tools

Some materials require the use of special tools when handling, such as:

  • Bone fold: For use when turning pages that are not suitable for touching or might be easily smeared.
  • Weights: For use when viewing  rolled objects or books. These should be placed on white space only – never on print or writing.
  • Book supports/pillows: For use with rare books, especially those with tight or fragile bindings.

Handling of Specific Formats

The most important rule of archival preservation is do no harm. If any handling of an items seems to be causing harm, stop the action immediately and ask for help from a staff member. While there are basic handling principles, materials often require different treatment depending on format. Please consider the following:

Loose Paper

  • Keep items in the correct order and replace items in the correct enclosures.
  • Do not touch text, writing, or images to avoid smudging.
  • Keep items flat on tabletops.
  • Turn loose pages by holding the opposite corners of the page with two hands.
  • Turn pages one at a time to keep them aligned. Do not shuffle or square papers on tabletops.
  • Use acid-free paper strips for placeholders. Do not use sticky notes.


  • Avoid holding books by their spines as this is the most vulnerable area.
  • Carry books flat in both hands or on a cart. Larger volumes may be carried under one arm, spine down.
  • Remove books from shelving by grasping the volume mid-spine with the covers between your thumb and finders. DO NOT GRIP THE SPINE. Use your opposite hand to support the book from underneath.
  • For tightly shelved books, reach behind the volume and gently push the book forward. DO NOT PULL THE TOP OF THE SPINE TO REMOVE THE BOOK.
  • Assess the book for vulnerabilities before handling. Books with more fragile or tight spines might need additional support when viewing.
  • Do not force books open; open them only as far as the spine will naturally allow. Cradle tight spines in your hand or in a book support.
  • Do not flip through pages or use a pinching motion to turn pages. Turn one page at a time, slowly.
  • Use a bone fold to turn fragile pages or pages made of parchment.
  • Do not touch text, illustrations, or marginalia.
  • Use acid-free paper strips to mark pages if needed.
  • Be aware of red rot on leather covers to avoid transferring to the pages.


  • Wear nitrile gloves when handling photographic materials such as photographs, negatives, glass plate negatives, and slides.
  • Never touch the front (i.e., emulsion surface) of photographs and other photographic materials.
  • Handle photographic materials from the edges only.
  • Do not remove photographic materials in Mylar sleeves.


  • Handle all textiles gently with two hands. Never allow materials to bear their own weight.
  • For heavy materials, give them additional support using a box or board.
  • If any action, such as unfolding, seems to be causing damage, stop the action.
  • Operate with clean hands. When handling more delicate fabrics such as silk, use nitrile gloves.

Rolled Materials

  • Ensure that you have ample workspace before unrolling materials.
  • Unroll carefully and slowly. Some items may require the use of two sets of hands.
  • Weights may be used to hold down corners and edges. Take care not to place weights on any text, writing, or images.
  • Realign edges when rerolling.

Three-Dimensional Objects

  • Wear nitrile gloves when handling artifacts, which can be harmed by oily hands and sweat.
  • Handle only one artifact at a time.
  • Assess each artifact before handling. Avoid handling at points of decoration, weakness, deterioration, or where two pieces join together.
  • Do not lift using an object’s rim, handle, or other protruding part. These are often weak points and can result in damage.
  • Support artifacts with two hands. Depending on the object, place one hand under the object and the other at the object’s side or place hands on opposite sides of the object.
  • Place objects directly on a flat surface, never on top of other archival materials. The surface should support the entire length and width of the object.
  • Do not try to make the artifact function even if the artifact has moving parts. These objects are often fragile and susceptible to damage.  

AV Materials

  • Handle tapes from the case and do not touch spools or tape.
  • Keep tapes away from strong magnetic fields such as cell phones.
  • Store all formats upright on long edge (if applicable).
  • Before playback, materials should be assessed by an archivist or curator. Materials should adjust to room temperature before playing. All equipment should be clean and well maintained before use.