Smithsonian Institution Archives Research Room in the Arts and Industries Building, 1979, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. SIA2011-1486.

Posing a Thoughtful Question….and Answers (Action, Direction)

Excited to research at the Archives, but don’t know where to start?  Below are a few tips about details you should include in your inquiry that will help us help you.

We receive a lot of inquiries at the Archives; more than 7,000 during the past calendar year.  Commonly posed questions we can answer “off the cuff” and questions forwarded to another Smithsonian unit are often not “logged” in our annual statistics.  Thus, the 7,000 number is not necessarily comprehensive.  Five reference archivists address the majority of the inquiries, which may involve up to an hour of research, although we regularly exceed this policy. And, frankly, we become curious as well, and are dogged in unearthing an answer or solution to the matter at hand.  Furthermore, we strive to offer a reply of some measure within five business days, which may seem like an eternity in today’s digital age.  We are constantly refining our processes, enhancing our digital assets and web presence, and streamlining policies and procedures that have become archaic and undesirable (who wants a photocopy when a PDF sent via email has become the standard, for the time being….)

It should be noted that the Smithsonian Institution Archives is merely one unit under the Smithsonian umbrella.  Many of the museums have their own internal archives devoted to the collection scope and holdings of the respective museum.  While the size of the Smithsonian may appear intimidating, our staff is welcoming, encouraging, knowledgeable, and well-prepared to investigate whatever your curiosity may be. 

Perhaps the most direct way to contact us is to send us an email at, or via our web form.  Below are a few tips for posing an inquiry.

  • Introduce yourself; provide your name, and the preferred method through which we may offer a reply.
  • Bear in mind the five W’s + H (who, what, where, when, why and how) and provide us with as much information you have in this regard.

Screenshot of a search for "Joseph Henry" with an arrow pointing to the "catalog record source" sect

  • Try to complete some preliminary research using the resources at your disposal. The Smithsonian has several web-based search engines, including the Collections Search Center, which searches across the Smithsonian’s libraries, archives, art inventories, and research units.  This search engine offers several ways to refine your initial search on the left side of the page. Note the information included in the “Data Source” field, as this highlights the Smithsonian unit that holds the particular item.
  • The holdings of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) are included in a keyword search in the aforementioned Collections Search Center. You may, however, search just the holdings of SIA using the magnifying glass in the top right corner of our home page (the words “About, “Blog,” “Press,” and “Donate” appear to the left of the magnifying glass.  Click on the symbol to reveal a clean search space.) A search of the SIA website will include digital assets and pertinent finding aids (more on this in a bit) if we hold materials related to your search term.  Similar to the Collections Search Center, you may refine a search of the SIA website using the options that appear on the left side of the page once a keyword search has been conducted.

Screenshot of the Smithsonian Institution Archives' homepage with an arrow pointing to the magnifyin

  • When conducting a keyword search, whether of a Smithsonian website, or your preferred web browser, I suggest placing your keyword search in quotation marks (example, “Joseph Henry”) as doing so will refine the search.
  • A finding aid is essentially an index to a collection, often including a collection overview, a historical note and/or descriptive entry, and physical characteristics of the collection, followed by a box and folder list for the collection. The box and folder lists are the primary indexes and detail the contents of the collection.
  • The contents of the folder, in most instances, have not been digitized and therefore cannot be viewed online.  We have begun to digitize folder contents for some collections; if you see a PDF or page symbol to the left of or below the folder name/number, you are in luck!  Click on the symbol to view the contents of the folder.
  • Our finding aids are individually keyword searchable. Simply hold the “Ctrl” and “F” keys on your keyboard.  Doing so will create a keyword search space limited to the respective finding aid.  Enter your keyword(s) of choice and review the results.  This is much more efficient than reviewing the entire finding aid line-by-line.
  • It is always better to include more information in your inquiry than less. Explaining why you are contacting us, and in particular, what you may have read or saw online that led you to contact us, can enhance our ability to address your request. We welcome receiving hyperlinks to materials of interest.  If you see something on a Smithsonian website and are seeking further information, copy the link and include in in your request.  This enables us to see what drew your attention, and the links often include clues that perhaps may only be relevant to Smithsonian staff.  Furthermore, more detail may enable us to refer you to additional resources that may be of interest.
  • Be fearless. We enjoy the challenge of unraveling a mystery and take pride in offering a positive reply.  If we cannot address your request, we strive to offer a pathway through which an answer may be obtained, whether through another Smithsonian unit or elsewhere.

Some of the above suggestions apply specifically to Smithsonian collections and/or contacting the Smithsonian.  Some of the tips are intended to be universal.  Communication is often the curiosity key which unlocks the vault of knowledge, and a well-crafted, thoughtful question may unearth resources beyond expectation. 

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