Collections Access Policies

Searching Collections Online

Finding aids are guides to the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ collections and include general descriptions of materials, box/folder inventories of collection contents, and information on access and citation policies. The Archives provides online access to selected individual images, documents, and oral/video histories. The Archives’ Collection Search helps researchers find all of the records that have been digitized and cataloged to date. Please note that the majority (but not all) of the Archives’ collections have online finding aids which staff are constantly adding to and updating for the Collections Search.

The Archives’ Reference Team has answered frequently asked reference questions, as well as provided guidance on frequently used collections at the Archives. If the answer to your question cannot be found there, the Reference Team is also available to help researchers locate the materials they require, retrieve answers to specific questions about records listed in finding aids, and answer general Smithsonian history questions via the Reference Inquiry Form.

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex and holds millions of other collections across its various museums, research centers, libraries, and archives. For reference inquiries pertaining to collections across all the Smithsonian’s units, please visit the main Smithsonian website’s Collections Page.

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Using Collections in the Archives Reading Room

The Smithsonian Archives is located in the Capital Gallery Building in southwest DC. However, most records and special collections are stored off-site.

Appointments are not required to visit the Archives. However, researchers should contact the Reference Team at least one week prior to visiting to ensure that records can be made available in the central Archives Reading Room. The Research Room is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (except federal holidays). Researchers visiting the Archives must abide by Reading Room Rules.

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Policies Concerning Access and Restrictions on Use

The Smithsonian is a public trust dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. The Archives is dedicated to providing equitable service to all registered researchers and inquirers, and access to its holdings to the fullest possible extent consistent with personal privacy and Institutional proprietary rights.

While the majority of institutional records and special collections in the Archives' custody are open to research without restrictions, in some cases sensitive materials are restricted through agreement between the Archives and transferring offices or donors. The Archives does not accept restrictions without careful examination of their impact on the overall purposes of the Smithsonian Institution and a careful weighing of the relative values of private rights and public knowledge.

Access to restricted institutional records requires explicit permission of the transferring office or its successor office. Similarly, privately donated materials may carry restrictions imposed by deed as a condition of donation, and require the permission of the donor or donor’s agent. The Archives does not itself waive such restrictions, nor will it act as an advocate for any researcher seeking such waivers. The application process is the responsibility of the researcher.

However, a waiver of restrictions may be had through direct application by a researcher to the pertinent office or donor. The Archives supplies a form which researchers may use in applying for the waiver of restrictions. Additionally, reference staff may be contacted for assistance with the contact information (for offices or donors, for example) needed to apply for a waiver of restrictions. Once the waiver of restrictions has been obtained by the researcher, the Archives needs to be given written notice granting an individual access to specific restricted materials before such materials will be made available for review. Please send any completed waiver of restriction forms or written documentation of a waiver to OSIAREF@si.edu.

Freedom of Information Act Requests: The Archives does not directly respond to requests received under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Office of General Counsel (OGC) serves as the Smithsonian's FOIA office. If a FOIA request comes directly to the Archives it is forwarded to OGC for action.

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Loans & Charge-Outs

The Archives exists to preserve surviving documentation. Lending or "charging-out" an original document, photograph, or file imperils its survival. Therefore, archival loans are rare and carefully managed to ensure protection of material during its absence.

  • Archives may be loaned to responsible offices and institutions, often for exhibition, reproduction, or conservation.
  • Institutional records may be loaned to the Smithsonian office that created them, or to their legal successors.
  • Personal papers may be loaned to the person who created the collection and/or donated it to the Archives, or to those authorized by the donor.
  • Records of professional societies may be loaned to the society, or to those authorized by the society.

In each case, however, a readable copy is preferred to the loan of original documents. The main concern is for the survival of the original primary evidence and its continued availability for all users.

Archival materials may not be checked out to any researchers merely for their convenience. Similarly, although the Archives maintain a small library of printed works for ready reference in the Reading Room, these items are not available for check out. They must remain available in the Reading Room for the use of all patrons and Archives staff members who require access to them daily.

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Copyright & Citation of Smithsonian Institution Archives Records & Special Collections in Publications

Unless there is a specific Smithsonian Institution copyright involved, the burden of determining copyright status and permissions falls on the researcher. Archives staff does not routinely research the copyright status of materials for clientele.

It is also expected that researchers will give full and proper credit to the Smithsonian Institution Archives as their source of quotations and citations, and to cite those sources completely so that others may refer to them easily. Further information is located in our Rights & Reproduction section.

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Copying & Reproduction Services

Each researcher may receive ten (10) free photocopies, or copy-flow copies from microfilm/microfiche per fiscal year. Subsequent copies (both letter and legal size) cost $0.20 per page. Researchers will not be charged for photographing or scanning materials with their own equipment.

Waiver of Fees: Copying fees are waived for any employee, research associate, research collaborator, fellow, volunteer, or intern duly registered and in possession of a Smithsonian identification badge and in current employment or affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution. Fees are also waived for donors of special collections and organizational records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Limitations on Photocopying for Researchers Unable to Visit the Archives:

  • The Archives will not provide copies from restricted record units/accessions without permission of the originating office or donor.
  • The Archives will not copy an original item that is deemed too fragile to survive the handling required for copying, or any item in which copying will likely produce further deterioration. The Archives’ Preservation Team will always be consulted whenever the condition of material to be copied is in question. In some cases, a copy master (filed with the original material) will already have been prepared and copies can be made from it. In other cases, a Preservation Team member will offer to copy delicate materials for researchers. As a general rule, original tissue, letterpress books should not be copied. Researchers will be asked to take notes when studying these volumes. Whenever a collection is available on microfilm, it is preferable to make copies from the film. All copyable books, journals, diaries, and other materials should be copied on the book-edge copier.
  • The Archives reserves the right to refuse extremely large copying orders that will place undue pressures on the staff. When receiving such requests reference staff will suggest that the requester visit the Archives, or hire someone to examine materials in the reading room (a list of freelance researchers is maintained by the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives and Human Film Studies Archive). Large on-site copying requests should be handled by the researcher, under supervision of the Reference and Preservation Teams.

The Archives reserves the right to refuse any copying request that requires excessive searching or judgment and choices among alternatives by a team member instead of the researcher.

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Rights & Reproduction Policy

Reproduction of Photographs

Please visit the Rights & Reproduction section for information about reproducing the Archives’ photographs. 

Reproduction of Audiovisual Materials

Please visit the Rights & Reproduction section for information about reproducing the Archives’ audiovisual materials.

Smithsonian Archives Fee for Commercial Users:

Please visit the Rights & Reproduction section for information about reproducing the Archives’ materials for commercial use. In cases where the Archives’ photographs/audiovisual materials are used in commercial, money-making projects (e.g., publications, television/video productions, websites), the requester may be charged a license, or user's, fee. This fee is separate from any reproduction fees.

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