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Tutorial for Archival Research on Women's Human Rights

Embrey Women's Human Rights Initiative

This tutorial is designed to help you research women's human rights using the archives at The University of Texas at Austin.  As you study women’s struggles for economic, civil, social, cultural, and political rights from various disciplinary perspectives, use primary sources to connect with issues discussed in the classroom.

Some uses for the tutorial are:

  • As an assigned reading for students before they begin an archival research project.
  • As a guide for individual students choosing to use archives as sources for class assignments.
  • As a resource for professors seeking to incorporate archival research on women's human rights into their courses.
  • As a teaching tool in the classroom.
  • By students, staff, and faculty of UT-Austin and neighboring schools.
  • By community members not affiliated with UT-Austin.

The tutorial was created as a resource for the School of Undergraduate Studies Signature Courses on women, gender, and human rights supported by the Embrey Women’s Human Rights Initiative (renamed Embrey Critical Human Rights Initiative - ECHRI).

To start your exploration of the archives, go to Step 1: Find an Archival Collection

This tutorial was created in April 2011 by Amelia Koford as a project for dual master's degrees in Information Studies and Women's and Gender Studies.  Any reproduction of this material should credit Amelia Koford.

Step 1: Find an Archival Collection

Rwandan genocide testimony

Still image from the video testimony of Safi Mukundwa, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Video recorded by the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, on February 28, 2007. Courtesy Genocide Archive Rwanda, Human Rights Documentation Initiative, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

UT-Austin is home to unique primary sources related to women’s human rights struggles.  You might choose to examine the early drafts of an author’s book, the journals of an activist, or an online video documenting human rights violations.

Archives are usually organized into groups based on the person or organization who created or assembled them.  For our purposes, a group of archival materials created by a particular person or organization is called a collection.  Different archives might use different terms, like record group, manuscript group, personal papers, or fonds, to identify sets of archival materials.  Here are some ways to find an archival collection related to women, gender, and human rights:

  • Your professor might have assigned a particular collection.  In that case, you can skip this step.
  • Search the website of UT’s Human Rights Documentation Initiative:
  • Although the Human Rights Documentation Initiative provides a straightforward way to identify a collection for your research, it is not an exhaustive list of all of UT-Austin’s materials related to women’s human rights.  Try searching for your topic in TARO (Texas Archival Resources Online).  Keep in mind that this will show results from all participating Texas archives, not just the ones located in Austin.  You can also search the websites of individual archival respositories on campus, or visit them in person to search their card catalogs and finding aids for materials not represented online.
  • You may choose to search for online archives beyond UT-Austin.  Check with your professor to make sure these fulfill the requirements of your project.  Here are some websites containing archives and primary source materials:
    • WITNESS, an international organization that advances human rights campaigns through the use of video.
    • American Memory, a digital library documenting American history provided by the Library of Congress.
    • North American Women’s Letters and Diaries, a collection of diaries and letters written by North American women between 1700 and 1950 (subscription database available to UT-Austin students).
    • Gerritsen Collection: Women's History Online, a collection of books, pamphlets, and periodicals related to feminism and women's rights.  Includes materials from Europe, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand between 1543 and 1945 (subscription database available to UT-Austin students).

Step 2: Prepare for Research

Suffrage demonstration

Women's suffrage demonstrators being arrested. From Jailed for Freedom by Doris Stevens, 1920. Harry Ransom Center rare book collection. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Books, Articles, and Websites

Read up on your topic before starting to look at archives. This will help you understand the terms and names you find mentioned there.

Try browsing for books, articles, and websites about the place and time that gave rise to your chosen collection.  Here are some places to start your search:

Finding Aids

It is also important to look at the finding aid associated with the collection.  Finding aids are descriptions of the content and context of archival materials. Check to see whether your collection has a finding aid available at the TARO (Texas Archival Resources Online) website or the website of the individual repository.  If not, wait until you visit the repository, then ask the archivist at the desk whether there is a finding aid for your chosen collection. 

Not all archives have finding aids - some physical materials are only described in a card catalog, and some online archives are described and searched in other ways.

Some important sections in a typical finding aid are:

  • Biographical or historical note: Read this section carefully for information about the person or organization that created the materials.
  • Scope and contents note: Read this section for a narrative description of the contents of different parts of the collection.  Identify which materials sound the most interesting and relevant to your research topic.
  • Box and folder inventory: Use this section to identify particular boxes or folders to view.  This can be a long list, so use the descriptions from the scope and contents note to narrow it down.

Step 3: View the Collection

Anzaldua papers

The papers of author and activist Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa. Image courtesy of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

Physical Collections

Have you chosen to view a physical collection at one of the archives on campus? Visit the repository's website to familiarize yourself with the location, hours, and policies:

Allow plenty of time for your first visit to the archives.  Don't wait until just before your assignment is due!  Let the staff know you're a first-time archives visitor.  They might give you a short orientation.

Unlike libraries, which usually contain published works that can be replaced, archives contain rare and unique materials that are often irreplaceable.  For this reason, archival materials cannot be checked out. 

You will view items in a reading room, which has special rules to protect the materials:

  • Store your belongings in the locker or shelf provided.
  • Use only pencils or laptops, not pens, to take notes.
  • Use only notepaper that has been cleared for entry by the staff.  Some archives provide special yellow paper, or paper marked with a stamp.

The organization of materials in an archives can be unfamiliar.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Archival items are usually kept in folders, which are kept in boxes. 
  • Archives have closed stacks, so rather than browsing through shelves, you'll ask the archives staff to retrieve a few folders or boxes at a time.
  • Ask the archives staff to see the finding aid for your collection, and use it to choose a few folders that look potentially useful.  Request them by box number and folder number using a paper call slip (at the Benson Latin American Collection or the Briscoe Center for American History) or an online research account (at the Harry Ransom Center).

Feel free to approach the reference desk and ask the archivists questions.  If you're ever unsure about what to do next, just ask!

Online Collections

Have you chosen to view an online collection?  Once you've found the link to an online collection, you are usually just a few clicks away from watching a video, examining an archived website, or viewing digital documents.  Don't forget to ask for help if you're having trouble.  Talk to your professor, visit a library or archives, or call the reference desk at a library or archives.  Or if you're affiliated with UT-Austin, chat online with a librarian.

Step 4: Conduct Research

Pointblank Times magazine

Pointblank Times, an independent publication from Houston, 1977. From the Frieda Lindfield Werden Papers. The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Examine the Materials

Now that you're finally sitting down with a folder or website, it's time to conduct research. Examine the materials and take notes on what you find relevant or interesting.  Looking at primary sources involves more than simply reading them - try to analyze and interpret what you find.  Think about who created the materials, who their audience was, the impact of the time period, and connections with other people, events, and issues.

In a physical archives, keep your notes organized with the names and numbers of the folders and boxes.  This will help you cite your sources and find materials again if needed.  Handle items with care and don't change the order of the materials in the folder.

You might examine just a few folders, or several boxes.  Don't feel that you need to view a whole collection - many are quite large!

It is good to have a guiding research question. However, if your question is too specific, it can be difficult to find archival evidence.  You might revise or change your topic according to interesting things you find.

Different archival repositories have different policies on photocopying. You may need to ask staff to make a copy for you, and there may be a waiting period and a charge. For these reasons, it's best not to count on making a lot of photocopies.

Cite Your Sources

When presenting your research in a paper or presentation, you will need to cite your sources. Your professor might have guidelines about citation style.  The archival repository might also have a preferred citation format listed in the finding aid or on its website.  Your citation will probably contain these basic elements (followed by examples):

    1. The creator's name
      • Anzaldúa, Gloria Evangelina
    2. A title for the work
      • Letter to Sandra Cisneros
    3. The date of the work
      • 1989
    4. The collection name
      • Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers
    5. The box and folder number
      • Box 9, Folder 9
    6. The repository name
      • Benson Latin American Collection
    7. The institution and location
      • University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas

Step 5: Consider Emotions and Ethics

Anzaldua pictogram

An overhead transparency used by Gloria Anzaldúa in her teaching. From the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.


Looking at images, documents, and videos from women's human rights struggles can be an emotionally challenging experience.  It might make you feel inspired and committed, or powerless and numb.  You might find it helpful to talk to others about your experiences, to write in a journal, or to take a break and focus on something else. 


Archival research also has an ethical component. Is there a way for you to be in dialogue with the speakers in the archives rather than just viewing them as objects of study? As you conduct your research and frame an argument, it can be helpful to think about these questions:

  • What were the creator's historical and cultural contexts?
  • What were the steps between the creation of this material and my viewing of it?
  • What materials are absent from this collection?  What stories are not told?
  • What responsibilities do I have in representing this collection in my work?

Archival research on women's human rights can be challenging, but extremely rewarding. Good luck in the archives!

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