Using the Harsh Collection at Woodson Library PDF Print E-mail

The Harsh Collection is CLOSED at the WOODSON LIBRARY until sometime in early 2018.
For those researchers who have a topic in African-American history and want to go to a special collections, try the Black Metropolis Research Survey or Mapping the Stacks or Explore Chicago Collections for alternate institutions. Fortunately, many collections carry primary sources and digital collections offer key sources too.

Suggested Archival Collections in African American Labor, Women's, and Civil Rights History


  • Are you freaked out at the idea of touching old and rare documents?
  • Do you have lots of secondary sources and feel like you’re ready for more primary source materials?
  • Is your teacher bugging you about “going to the library” outside of your own school’s resources?
  • Are you ready for the next step in History Fair research?


harsh collection

Using the Harsh Research Collection for Afro-American History and Literature

(Otherwise Known As…)

A Guide for Students Who May Be Overwhelmed or Unsure of How To or Why They Should Use this Tremendous Resource!

Congratulations! You are joining 20,000 students throughout Chicago who make this journey through the History Fair, including research, collection of materials, development of thesis, organization of information, and presentation of argument and significance. The work you are doing is valuable and important – be proud of your accomplishments!

I have sources, but not many. Where can I find a variety of types to help with my project?

If you’re struggling with materials for your topic, don’t worry! Many students wrestle with the argument and with finding the sources they require to make the most of their ideas. However, if you have found a topic that interests you and have begun using your secondary sources to shape the background and context of your research, perhaps you are finding yourself in need of more materials to strengthen your project. If this is the case, you’re in luck! The Harsh Collection can help!

What’s in the Harsh Collection for me, anyway? Why bother going?

The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature can be found right here in Chicago at 95th and Halsted (about a mile from the CTA Red Line)! While there are additional archival collections found at Sulzer Regional Public Library and the Harold Washington Library Center, this particular collection, found at the Woodson Regional Library focuses on African American history in Illinois, with a wealth of precious documentation of the Black experience.

Your project is meant to tell a story – the story you decided to tell when you chose your topic and wrote your thesis. If you use only secondary sources (or very few primary and secondary sources), that story is only somewhat told. As with any historical research, balancing all sides of the topic is crucial; rather than telling one side of the story, effective historians consider multiple perspectives and draw conclusions based on their findings. You can become an effective historian on your project by using a bevy of primary and secondary sources, and the Harsh Collection is a wonderful resource for both types of research. The research will give your History Fair project the authenticity and perspective that true historians use and rely on to make their presentations and research valid, respected, and worthwhile.

I’m uncomfortable with this. I’ve never done anything like this before. It makes me nervous.

Perhaps the idea of visiting an archive that holds over 80,000 books, 600 periodical titles, 103 microfilm research collections, and approximately 200 manuscript holdings collections is a little scary at first. Maybe you don’t know where to begin, especially if your library card is as dusty as that corner in the back room. But visiting--and using--this wonderful collection doesn’t have to be a frightening experience!

By following the directions listed here AND by doing your homework before you arrive, your time at the Harsh Collection will prove both worth your time and truly magical in so many ways!

harsh collection boxes

Three Simple Steps to Maximizing and Understanding Your Experience at the Harsh Collection

Step 1: Become Familiar with Archives and their Purposes

An archive is a place to store unique records of lasting importance. Records kept in archives are often one of a kind or at least are very difficult to replace if lost, stolen, or destroyed. It is not necessarily the age of the records that give them their value; rather, it is the content and research potential of the documents that call for their preservation in an archive. Information can be stored on paper, magnetic tape, CD Rom, photographs, videotape, sketches, maps, and architectural drawings. Thus, a visit to archives can prove to be a worthwhile experience.

Finding aids are your friends! Using these resources is much more manageable than you might think. Often, there are finding aids available either online or, more often, by request from the reference librarian that can inform your search more quickly than thumbing through linear foot after linear foot of materials. These finding aids include information about your topic or about people who make an impact on your topic; bibliographies of the sources used to provide background to the topic or those people; and specific listings and locations of which documents boxes and folders house. These resources can range from birth and death records to newspaper clippings from the source’s personal collection to personal letters, financial records, and manuscripts from meetings. All of these primary sources are valuable and rare; they may also prove to be really valuable to your research on your topic. But you won’t know unless you go, look, and experience the archives!

Step 2: Plan Your Research

Before you visit the archive, it’s important to do your homework (everyone’s favorite!) in order to be prepared and maximize your time while you’re there.

1.) Visit and click on Archival Collections located under the “BROWSE” tab. This page includes ALL CPL collections – If your topic or a collection that links to your topic is at the Harsh Collection, it will be stated in the first two lines. Additional finding aids for the Harsh Collection are at UNCAP.

2.) Be sure you have enough secondary research to be knowledgeable and able to speak on your topic. If you request primary materials from an archive without doing the background research to understand the basics of your topic, don’t bother going! Having solid knowledge about your topic is crucial before tackling primary research.

3.) Check the hours of the library and of the archive. Nothing is more frustrating than planning a trip to the library only to find that it is closed. Use for this, as well!

4.) Bring pencils – NO PENS! Ink, in any form, is not allowed near the sources.

5.) Bring Identification – library cards, licenses, State ID, etc. You will need to present these things in order to handle materials you request.

Step 3: Visit the Archive – What to Do and Expect

harsh collection studentsYou’ve found your collection in the online list and it’s waiting for you at the Vivian G. Harsh Collection, begging to be seen and used! Hooray! Your pencils are sharpened, your ID is in your pocket, you’ve done a good amount of secondary (perhaps some primary) research, and you’re ready for a visit when the library is open.

A.) Go to the desk in the Harsh Collection (to the left when you enter the Woodson Library). INTRODUCE yourself and let the reference librarian on duty know why you are there – give information on the topic and the collection you’re hoping to view, and be sure to specify you are doing a Metro History Fair project! This helps the librarians help you– they are familiar with the process and can help more if they know this is your purpose for visiting and requesting those materials. Also, be polite! Saying “please” and “thank you” will get you much further than without those key phrases!

Remember to ask for finding aids that may be available for use with your collection! Many of these are available, but only when you get the library – very few are online, so be SURE to inquire about them when you get to the desk!

B.) You will be presented with a Researcher Registration Form and prompted for your ID. Read the form and be sure to ask questions about it or the policies of viewing collections, if you have any. Don’t be afraid to ask! The reference librarians will be more than willing to help, especially once you’ve identified yourself as a Metro HF student! Follow all the guidelines given – these are precious and rare materials that many people value and need to use. Be careful!  This form and all the rules are required of ALL researchers, not only students.

C.) Once the reference librarian has lovingly brought out your materials (be patient – it may take a few minutes to find and get them for you!), handle ONLY ONE FOLDER at a time and be very sure to replace it in the same location from where it came. Concentrating on only one folder ensures the archives stay organized for everyone AND allows you to concentrate on the treasures you’re finding - one at a time! If you need a colored piece of paper to act as a placeholder while you use a particular folder, the librarians and those at the desk will be happy to provide them for you. Just ask!

D.) Joy! You have found sources that are perfect for your project! But you can’t photocopy them, since you signed that Researcher Registration Form and read it thoroughly – it clearly stated no copies. Now what?!  The staff will give you a different form to request copies.  Take great care in completing this form, so the staff can understand which sources you would like copied and in which locations they can be found. Also, these copies may not be done instantly – you will probably have to come back to pay for and pick up your copies, or they will mail them to your via U.S. Postal Service. Either way, don’t think this is a one-stop event! They will process your request as soon as they can – really. All the more reason to plan your visit early!

--Written by History Fair teacher Kristen Machczynski.


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