A Guide to Citing Materials from Physical Archives and Collections

By Jennifer Rappaport

To cite materials from physical archives, follow the MLA format template. In general, list the author, if given, and then the title or a description of the work. If the work is contained in a collection, list the collection name as the title of the container. Include any other elements that apply. The library or institution where the collection can be found may be listed as part of the container or as part of the location, but box, file, and manuscript numbers should always be listed in the “Location” slot. Below are examples of works-cited-list entries for archival material found in print and online.

Complete Work

In the following entry, the library housing the manuscript is in the “Location” slot: 

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Circa 1400-10, British Library, London, Harley MS 7334.

Document in an Archival Collection

In the entry below, the library may be considered part of the container (Decision Magazine Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale U Library) or part of the location (Yale U Library, MS 176, box 1, folder 20):

Auden, W. H., and Klaus Mann. Prospectus. Decision Magazine Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale U Library, MS 176, box 1, folder 20.


When you cite letters, include the date of the letter in the middle optional-element slot after the title or description of the letter. If you wish to indicate that the letter is handwritten, list “Manuscript” in the optional-element slot at the end of the entry:

Benton, Thomas Hart. Letter to Charles Fremont. 22 June 1847. John Charles Fremont Papers, Southwest Museum Library, Los Angeles. Manuscript.

Moore, Marianne. Letter to Bryher. 28 Sept. 1954. Bryher Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale U, GEN MSS 97, box 38, folder 1373.

Uncertain Date

If the date of a document is uncertain, add a question mark after the date:

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Thorkelin y el Beowulf.” 1955–60? Jorge Luis Borges Papers, Harry Ransom Center, U of Texas, Austin, section 2, container 1.14, ff. 1r–11v.

Unprocessed Materials

If the material you are citing is in an unprocessed collection, provide in-text citations that include descriptions of the items and omit works-cited-list entries.

To learn how to cite archival material from Web sites and databases, see our post on citing artifacts in digital archives.

Published 25 April 2018

2 comments on “A Guide to Citing Materials from Physical Archives and Collections”

  1. I am citing unpublished letters from an archival collection in the footnotes of in my history thesis. Do I write the sender’s and receiver’s names as surname first comma initials?

    • From the example in the article, it looks like you put the writer surname first and the receiver first name and surname.

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