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HIST 299: Historian's Craft: 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

Introduction to Archival Research

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

Finding Aids

Finding aids, also called inventories, are written guides that summarize and describe archival collections.  Finding aids are designed to help you navigate archival collections to locate materials pertinent to your topic.
* Please keep in mind that finding aids are by no means exhaustive.


Parts of a Finding Aid Include: 

  • Collection Overview
  • Abstract or Scope and Content
  • Biographical Note
  • Historical Note
  • Subject and Index Terms
  • Collection Arrangement
  • Box and Folder List
  • Administrative Note Information

Archival Intelligence

Archival Intelligence refers to a user’s understanding of archival policies, arrangement and systems. It also entails basic information literacy for primary sources.

Four general categories of archival literacy skills:

  1. Observation:  describing the elements of a document, photograph, or finding aid
  2. Interpretation/Historical Context: finding meaning in the sources and placing them in a broader context
  3. Evaluation/Critical thinking: asking questions regarding the validity, limitations, strengths of sources
  4. Research Skills: generating a meaningful awareness of archives, where to locate primary sources, and how to read a basic finding aid

Research Management

Organizing your research will help keep track of the sources you have investigated. Below are a few options to help manage your research findings. 

Archival Silence

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