FBI Web page for The Vault

Citing Artifacts in a Digital Archive

By Angela Gibson

What we call “digital archives” range from easily searchable Web sites to institutional repositories to databases. This post focuses on digital archives that embed artifacts (whether documents or other forms of media) as non-HTML objects on a Web site. Four main challenges confront researchers who cite artifacts in such archives: identifying a useful description when a title for the item is lacking, clearly directing the reader to a relevant section of the work, knowing how many details to provide about the archive holding the work, and determining the title of the source’s container.

Example 1

In the example below, for a digital archive collecting Pennsylvania State’s file cards of civil war veterans, an alphabetical range of ten cards appears on each page. In other words, ten works appear on the same page and with the same URL:

Each object in this digital archive is an individual work, yet objects do not have unique identifiers, like DOIs or URLs. Since each card is numbered, however, you can provide the number in your works-cited-list entry as a final optional element so that the reader can locate the card you cite and distinguish between cards of persons with the same name. For example, if you want to cite the card for William Gant, listing “Item 6” at the end of your entry will tell your reader that the card is item 6 on the Web site documented.

Since the cards lack formal titles, a description should be used in the “Title of source” element:

Civil war veterans’ card for William Gant. Pennsylvania State Archives, www.digitalarchives.state.pa.us/archive.asp?view=ArchiveItems&ArchiveID=17&FL=G&FID=1185185&LID=1185234. Item 6.

Example 2

The work cited below, a digitized manuscript for Thomas de Cantimpré’s  Sermo generalis de naturis rerum, is embedded on a Web site titled Harvard University and displayed through a viewer:

Your entry would thus include Harvard University, the title of the Web site, as the title of the container. Noting that you are using a viewer to see an embedded object by naming it is not usually necessary and, here, should not be treated as part of the container title:

Thomas de Cantimpré. Sermo generalis de naturis rerum. 14th century, MS Riant 19, Houghton Library, Harvard U, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Universityiiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:45440668$1i.

To cite a particular page of the manuscript, include the image number—labeled “seq.”—in your in-text citation, since an entire book-length work appears on the site.

Example 3

The work cited below, a digitized article on the New York Times Web site about the early-twentieth-century lawyer Mary Quackenbos, can be found by searching the Web site for The New York Times or its database and viewer, TimesMachine:

Regardless of how you found the article, when you click through to it, you are on a site titled The New York Times:


Your works-cited-list entry would appear thus:

“Woman Lawyer Causes Man’s Disbarment.” The New York Times, 4 Oct. 1905, nyti.ms/2v0zH5p.

Example 4

The works-cited-list entry below, for an FBI file found online, begins with the title of the document. It then includes a description of the file in the “Title of container” element, followed by pertinent publication details—here, part and document numbers and a date. The second container includes the name of the Web site as the title of the container, the publisher of the site, and the URL. As always, key your in-text citation to the first element of the work-cited-list entry and provide the page number of the document you are citing:

An FBI report notes that in an interview Langston Hughes “told of the heroic work of the many Negroes from the United States in Spain’s fight against General Franco” (“Langston Hughes” 3). 

Work Cited

“Langston Hughes.” FBI file for Langston Hughes, part 4, document no. 100-25776, 4 Oct. 1944. The FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Department of Justice, vault.fbi.gov/langston-hughes/langston-hughes-part-04-of-04/view. 

Even though the title of the archive has a name—The Vault—the Web site you are on is titled The FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so it is the title of your container.

To learn how to cite an artifact from an archive you visit in person, see our post on citing material from physical archives and collections. 

Published 25 April 2018

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