Cite Materials

Correctly citing sources can be challenging. It isn’t an exact science, but a practice intended to promote ethical, replicable use of sources. This guide is intended to assist you in citing materials you’ve used at Kenneth Spencer Research Library and other similar special collections libraries and archives.
Overhead view of a researcher working at a library table. He is holding a postcard and pencil. His arms rest on an open folder and a yellow legal pad with notes.

This guide has two focuses.

  1. Citing sources within academic contexts such as courses at the University of Kansas. The guide explores three common citation styles used in academic settings: MLA, APA, and Chicago.
  2. Citing archival sources. The New York Public Library describes archives as "records created by people and organizations as they lived and worked." Collections can range in size from a single document to hundreds of boxes. They generally contain unpublished materials such as letters, diaries, drafts of literary works, financial records, meeting minutes, reports, scrapbooks, memorabilia, photographs, and audiovisual materials. The unpublished materials in archival collections are usually one-of-a-kind items that exist only in the collection where a researcher finds them.

Think of archives as a series of nesting dolls. The item is the smallest doll and it exists within increasingly large levels: the item, then a part of the collection (box and/or folder and/or section, if/as appropriate), then the collection as a whole, and then the repository where the collection is housed. In order to correctly cite archival materials, you must describe the item itself as well as each of these levels. This is true no matter which citation style you are using.

In addition to consulting this guide, you should always check with your instructor for their specific guidelines for citing archival material. You can also get extra help from a Spencer librarian by visiting the Reading Room or emailing

Sections of this Guide

Why Does Citing Sources Matter?

The practice of documenting source use is important across a wide range of contexts and disciplines. Whether you are writing a research paper for class, drafting a scholarly article for publication, or developing a blog post for your personal website, giving credit to the authors, texts, and sources that inform your work shows that you are an ethical user of information and makes you more credible to your intended audiences.

Source citations also allow future readers and researchers to track and replicate the research you conducted. This is particularly important when using sources found in a special collections library or archive because these items are more likely to be rare and otherwise difficult for other researchers to locate if they are not fully cited. Failure to give credit to others for their ideas is considered plagiarism, and it has the opposite effect on credibility. Plagiarism also results in unfavorable legal, academic, or other consequences. All the more reason to ensure you properly document the sources you use!

Locating Source Information for Archival Materials

Correctly citing archival collections can be particularly tricky because they frequently contain a wide variety of source types. Some of the information you need about an archival item or collection may require some work to locate; finding it may not be as simple as working with non-archival sources. In some cases, it may be that you simply don’t have all the pieces of information that a particular citation style asks you to include.

You can find information about the archival sources you’re working with in a variety of places, including the following:

  • The document or item itself. Look for information like the date a document was written, the author, the recipient (if appropriate), and the location where a document was written. Be sure to always turn photographs over to see if they list subject names, dates, or other information on the back.
  • The catalog record describing the collection. Each record in the KU Libraries online catalog contains information about an item. The information is presented in standardized fields that describe aspects of the item, including the title, author, publisher, subjects covered, number of pages, and location at the library.
  • The finding aid describing the collection. A finding aid provides more detailed information about an archival collection than a catalog record. A finding aid helps researchers in navigating an archival collection and finding information about subjects, people, places, and events documented within it. In general, each one describes the creation, content, context, and organization of materials in a specific archival collection. Not all Spencer finding aids are online; some exist only as paper inventories in the Reading Room. Ask a Spencer librarian for assistance accessing these finding aids. For more information about finding aids, see the “Finding Aids 101” post on the Spencer blog.
  • Labels or information on folders and boxes. In particular, look for call numbers and box and folder numbers. This information should also be in the finding aid.

In some cases, you may be able to use available information to extrapolate the unrecorded details of archival materials. For example, you may encounter an undated document or photograph. Examine the item closely, specifically things like its physical characteristics (e.g. handwritten versus typed or type of photograph); the topics, popular culture, or events referenced or depicted; and other contextual clues (e.g. clothes and cars shown in the photograph). These clues may enable you to approximate when the item was created, even if your guess is rather broad (e.g. circa 1870-1900, circa 1941-1945, after 1950).

Taking Notes in the Reading Room

As you conduct research in the Reading Room at Kenneth Spencer Research Library – and in any similar archive or repository of sources – it is important to take careful notes about the materials you consult. Doing so will help to ensure you can properly reference these materials later on (as well as properly cite them!). Additionally, tracking your research allows you to be more efficient and thorough in your approach to conducting archival research. Use the following information as an aid to help ensure you have carefully documented all the necessary information you will need from a given collection.

Take note of the following for every collection you consult:

  • Collection title
  • Call number or record group (RG) number (some collections may consist of multiple call numbers)
  • Additional information
  • Link to the record in the KU Libraries catalog, if the collection/item has one
  • Link to the finding aid, if the collection/item has one

Additionally, take note of the following if the collection consists of only a single item rather than multiple boxes:

  • Item source type (letter, photograph, diary, meeting minutes, etc.)
  • Item author/creator(s)
  • Item date(s)
  • Page number(s) or, if not present, another way that information or quotations can be located, e.g. the date of a diary entry
  • Notes about the item
  • Photos or scans (be sure they indicate page numbers, either visually or in the file names you assign)

Or, take note of the following if the collection consists of multiple boxes:

  • Box number
  • Folder number
  • Notes (including source types, dates, author/creators, and page numbers)
  • Photos or scans (be sure they indicate identifying information like box numbers, folder numbers, and/or page numbers, either visually or in the file names you assign)

Citing Print Sources

Spencer Research Library houses thousands of print sources – including books, government documents, periodicals, and maps – in addition to archival collections. Because it is generally more straightforward to cite print sources, this topic is beyond the scope of this guide. You can find information about citing these types of sources in the following places:

Keep in mind that many print sources at Spencer Research Library are – like archival collections – more likely to be rare and otherwise difficult for other researchers to locate if they are not fully cited. For that reason, it may be beneficial to add identifying information when citing print sources you accessed at Spencer. This would include the item’s call number and the name and location of the repository, e.g. “Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.”