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Ryerson & Burnham Archives FAQ


Visiting the Archives

Permissions and Publishing


1. What is the Ryerson and Burnham Archives (RBA)?

The primary mission of the RBA is to gather, preserve and make accessible research materials which enhance the scope of the Libraries’ existing collections; that are pertinent to the research and preparation of Art Institute exhibitions and publications; and/or which complement, support, or create context for objects acquired by curatorial departments within the museum. The collections of the RBA are diverse, though predominantly focused on documenting the development of art and architecture in Chicago and the Midwest from the 1870s to the present. The built environment is documented through the papers of architects, urban planners, landscape architects, engineers and industrial designers. The role of art in the Midwest is documented through the papers of artists, photographers, educators, arts organizations and galleries. Thematic groupings of the collections can be browsed here.

2. What is an "archival collection"?

Within the context of the RBA, the term "archival collection" refers to any group of related documentation that has been collected and identified as a distinct administrative entity. Each archival collection is identified by both a name and an accession number (i.e., call number). These collections typically include a mix of primary (e.g., letters, manuscripts) and secondary (e.g., magazine articles, criticism) source materials.

3. What is a "finding aid"?

Finding aids are inventories or indices that describe the contents and context of an archival collection. Finding aids are the primary method of accessing information about any given collection. Do note that because some archival collections are very large, finding aids do not necessarily describe every item or object within each collection. Therefore, description may only be offered at the folder level (e.g., "letters, 1940").

4. What is the difference between the library and museum collections?

Many RBA collections relate to works of art held in the museum's curatorial collections, especially with regard to the Department of Architecture and Design (A&D). Broadly speaking, the A&D curatorial collection contains drawings, models and three-dimensional materials such as building fragments while the RBA archival collections contain mostly papers, photos and project documents. However, the RBA does also collect some drawings, models and 3D materials. Because many collections are split between the two departments, it may be necessary to search both in order to find all relevant materials. The A&D online collection can be searched and browsed here.

5. What formats do you have? Do you have video or audio in your collection?

Our collections include a wide variety of physical formats including: photographs, slides, drawings, letters, manuscripts, printed materials (e.g., newspapers, magazines, brochures), scrapbooks, ephemera, memorabilia, posters, postcards and maps. We also have a wide variety of audio and video formats (e.g., cassettes, VHS tapes, 16mm film, phonograph records) as well as born digital materials (e.g., Word documents, PDFs, etc.).

6. Can I see all of these materials online?

Yes, portions of our collection are digitized and available for online viewing. However, given size and copyright considerations, it is impractical for us to digitize everything. Some small collections have been scanned in their entirety, while for other collections, only the most commonly requested items—such as photographs, drawings and other visual materials—are available online. This information is also noted in the introduction to each finding aid. A list of digitized collections is available here.

7. Where can I submit a comment or correction to something I saw online?

All comments and correction requests can be sent to

8. Does the Ryerson and Burnham Archives accept donations?

Yes, the RBA does accept donations that fall within the scope of our mission and/or current collection policy. Please email us at with information on your donation.

9. Can I come in and see these materials in person?

Yes, with some restrictions. RBA access policies can be reviewed here.

10. Do I need to make an appointment?

Patrons may consult the RBA collections during the library's public hours. No appointment is necessary unless you wish to access restricted or offsite materials as indicated in the finding aids. Offsite materials can be retrieved when the archives staff works offsite, approximately every two weeks. Questions about restricted and offsite materials can be directed to RBA staff at

11. Can I download or purchase images from this site?

Our system is not configured to allow for the direct downloading of images. However, if you're interested in obtaining an image, you can submit your request through this order page or just send an email to us at

12. Can I reproduce images from your web site?

In most cases, yes, though you'll need to contact us first to request permission. Reproduction and licensing fees may apply. Also, in addition to permission from the Art Institute, permission of the copyright owner (if not the Art Institute) and/or any holder of other rights (such as publicity and/or privacy rights) may also be required for reproduction, publication, distribution, and any other uses. Responsibility for making an independent legal assessment of any item and securing any necessary permissions rests with the persons desiring to publish the item. If you're interested in reproducing an image from our collection, you can submit your request through this order page or just send an email to us at

Keep in mind that we manage only images from the RBA's archival collections. Images of The Art Institute's curatorial collections must be requested through the museum's Image Licensing website.

13. Can you help me research an architect, building or work of art?

We're happy to help answer simple questions about architecture and the arts in Chicago and the Midwest though we are limited in the amount of time we can spend per question. For more in-depth inquiries we may only be able to provide you with potential research sources. Out of town researchers may wish to hire a freelance researcher; a list is available here. Broad questions about non-local art and architecture topics, auction results or a work of art you wish to identify can be sent to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries reference staff at

14. Can you help me find information on an Art Institute exhibit or SAIC alum?

Questions about the history of the museum and the School of The Art Institute can be directed to the Institutional Archives at More information, including digitized exhibition catalogs may be found here.

15. Can you tell me how much my artwork is worth?

RBA staff cannot evaluate or appraise works of art, however the library does subscribe to a number of art price indexes and other databases that search auction results. Please email reference staff at for more information. Also, a brochure on how to locate art appraisers in the Chicago area is available here.

16. Does the Ryerson and Burnham Archives lend original documents for research?

No. The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries is a non-circulating library.

17. Does the Ryerson and Burnham Archives lend original documents for exhibitions?

Yes, original documents or artifacts may be loaned to qualified institutions for exhibition when the purpose of loan is consistent with the mission of the RBA and The Art Institute of Chicago. Borrowers should submit a written request 180 days prior to the loan date. Loan approval may be subject to security, fire protection, environmental, and transport requirements.

18. Where else can I find Chicago art and architecture research materials?

Local and regional institutions holding complementary collections include:

The Chicago Collections Consortium also maintains a searchable list of regional archives and special collections.