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AAST 395: African American Studies Research Methods (Greene): What is archival research?

Basic Definitions and Concepts

1. What exactly are archives?

An archive is a collection of primary materials. It can also be the place (a building or a department) where the materials are stored. Archivists (people who work in archives) often refer to the place where the materials are stored as a repository. An archives, or archival repository, often has multiple collections that come from or have to do with a place, a kind of material or sphere of activity, or a particular institution.

2. What are primary materials?

Here's a definition from the Society of American Archivists:

"Material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness."

This could include a range of formats, including correspondence, photographs, drawings, video or film, and sound recordings. Sometimes a collection may contain all these different types of formats. Primary source materials are different from books and articles written after an event has occurred.


Photographs Letters, memos
Newspaper articles Diaries
Oral histories Ledgers, receipts
Quilts Flyers
Songs, videos Poems

3. When would I use primary materials?

You would use primary materials in a research project after consulting all available secondary source materials (books, journal articles, documentaries, etc.) on a topic. The primary materials will enable you to build upon prior research and provide your own interpretation of events. Even if nothing has been written directly on your topic, background research will help you to understand the context in which events occurred or the time and place in which a person or a corporation's activities were set.