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Introduction to Archival Research: Archival Research

Introduction to Archival Research

Archival research involves primary sources held in an archives, a Special Collections library, or other repository. Archival sources can be manuscripts, documents, records (including electronic records), images, artifacts, recorded sound or moving images, or other materials. This guide includes resources and instructions for defining primary sources, developing archival research strategies, locating and citing archival materials, and understanding essential aspects of archival theory and practice. 

What is an archive?

An archive is "an organized collection of the noncurrent records of the activities of a business, government, organization, institution, or other corporate body, or the personal papers of one or more individuals, families, or groups, retained permanently (or for a designated or indeterminate period of time) by their originator or a successor for their permanent historical, informational, evidential, legal, administrative, or monetary value, usually in a repository managed and maintained by a trained archivist. Also refers to the office or organization responsible for appraising, selecting, preserving, and providing access to archival materials."

Source: Joan M. Reitz.  ODLIS Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science.   

Archives are n. ~ 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. - 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization's records of enduring value.  3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. - 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. - 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. - 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.

Source: Richard Pearce-Moses. A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology

Research Rules

  1. Only pencil, paper, and laptop computers can be used in the reading room. Please leave all backpacks, purses, books, large notebooks, etc. in the designated space or locker. 
  2. Cell phones must be silenced and calls must be taken outside the reading room. 
  3. Handle all materials carefully. Do note lean on books or manuscripts or take notes on them. Ask before photocopying or photographing anything. Permission to publish items is required. 
  4. Manuscript boxes must be left on the carts adjacent to the reference desk. Use one folder at a time, replacing each before pulling the next. 
  5. Let the reference archivist know if you are leaving the reading room and if you plan to return. 
  6. Do not hesitate to ask staff for help or direction!

The Call Slip

Introduction to Archival Research (Slides)


Includes helpful information on:

  • Procedures for using Special Collections and archives in order to properly access and handle primary source material
  • Distinguishing primary, secondary, and tertiary information
  • Searching archival holdings in the online catalog and finding aids in order to retrieve holdings information