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Introduction to Historic Preservation: ARCH3111 (SCRC)

A guide to finding and using materials in the Special Collections Research Center

Conducting Research in Archives and Special Collections

Archival materials are primary sources, or material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness, such as diaries or correspondence.  By contrast secondary sources are works that are not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject, but instead relies on sources of information, such as textbooks or history books.  

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) has a useful guide to conducting archival research, called Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research

For a good resource for understanding how archivists work, which can help you get the most out of your visit, see "How can you Help an Archivist to help you?  Reference services from our side of the desk," by Samantha Thompson


General Hints for Working with Archival Materials

Why isn’t everything digitized?

  • There is a growing amount of digitized materials available online, but the vast majority of archival materials are not, and may never be digitized, due to various costs and technical constraints  
  • Digital records, both born digital and digitally reformatted, are not as robust for long term access as traditional paper records
  • Without a systematic program and commitment to manage the long term maintenance of digitized materials, it is easy to lose access to them due to bit rot, digital obsolescence, and other factors
  • There are also environmental concerns, considering how much energy servers require
  • Archival research often involves in-person work in a reading room or library, though access tools like finding aids can guide your efforts remotely before you arrive.

Use Secondary sources

  • Consult secondary sources to become familiar with topic, (footnote/citation chasing) moving from the general to the specific.
  • Use reference works and secondary sources for background information and broad historical context, as well as identifying names, organizations, dates, places, and events

Plan ahead

  • Plan ahead to ensure materials are available for research. Leave enough time to work with staff, finding aids, and collections.  

Keep copious notes

  • Keep notes on records consulted to retrace steps and create proper citations
  • Remember that everything on one topic is not arranged together
  • Questions brought to the archives may not be answered directly by materials; rather, they may lead to different questions or conclusions

Interrogate your sources (See below)

Archives and Libraries are not neutral

  • They reflect the values and existing power structures of the society that created them.
  • Remember that a series of value judgments and decisions, made by the records creators and the archivist, impacted what you see before you
  • Consider why the archives may be silent on some issues.  Think about “archival absences;” what’s not there and why?  What does this say about who has the ability to create enduring records.  How and why do these records make it into the archive?

The Archivist and Librarian is your friend

  • Never be afraid to ask for help

Interrogating Primary Sources

These are some questions you should keep in mind when working with primary sources

  • Who created this item?
  • Where was it created?
  • Date of creation/date of dissemination/date of publication?
  • How do you think the object was distributed/disseminated?
  • What was the initial purpose of the item?
  • What voice does it use?  (1st person, 3rd person, etc?)
  • Was there a specific audience in mind?  Who?
  • How do you think it was received by that audience and other unintended audiences?
  • How was it created?  In what medium/media?  
  • Is the medium part of the message?
  • Why do you think the object has been preserved?
  • What additional questions do you want answered about this object?
  • What other facts would give you more context or information about the object.

Using Archives: A Guide to effective Research