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Archives Research Guide: Getting Started

How to research in archives and good starting points.

Using Archives and Archival Collections

What are Archives?

Archives are collections of historical records that are established to preserve the lives of individuals and organizations. Archives are comprised of primary source documents created or received by a person, family, or organization during their normal day-to-day activities. Materials found in the Staubitz Archives include interviews, photographs, recordings, copies of college publications, class scrapbooks, and materials related to student organizations and academic pursuits.

How are Archives Different From Libraries?

Because archives collect one-of-a-kind items, our rules are different than those of a library. Our collection is non-circulating; you can’t just browse the shelves and check out a box. We also arrange our collection differently; we don’t use Dewey or Library of Congress classification. To protect our fragile records, we ask that you don’t eat, drink, or chew gum in the Reading Room. It would be a shame if you spilled your latte on an 1858 record book. We can replace the latte, but we can’t replace the book.

What is the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history, providing a window into the past and unfiltered access to the historical record. These original records are not necessarily paper records; primary sources can also be prints, artwork, and audio and visual recording. Primary sources can be described as sources that are closest to the origin of the information. They contain raw information and therefore must be interpreted by the student.

Secondary sources are related to primary sources, but they are at least one step removed from the original event or issue. These sources, such as textbooks and articles, are documents that provide background details and relate to information that originated elsewhere. You can use secondary sources to interpret, analyze, describe, explain, or draw conclusions about the experiences detailed in primary sources.

Citing Primary Sources

Primary source citation depends on the type of primary source you are using (i.e. a law document, newspaper, etc.) and the style of citation required (i.e. MLA, APA, etc.). You can also access basic citation instructions at Purdue’s OWL (Online Writing Lab). In addition, the National Archives website has a guide to citing primary sources

Please consult the following resources for more information and examples:

Getting Started with Research

I Have to Write a Research Paper Using Primary Sources. Where Do I Start?

If you've never written a research paper using primary sources, it is important to understand that the process is different from the research you do using secondary sources. 

1. Formulate your thesis statement following your professor's instructions.

2. Research your topic via a general search for information just as you would any research project (use the Hedberg Library Catalog, specific databases, or Google). Getting an overview of the topic will help you narrow down your research as well as provide great ideas for variations on keyword searches.

3. Begin your search for primary sources:

1. Archival Finding Aids: Archival finding aids are inventories of the materials in an archival collection. The finding aid should give a complete list of a collection's contents by box or folder. Ideally, an archival collection is fully described in a finding aid that can be searched via a database to make research easier. However, in many cases there may only be minimal description of collections, so you may have to contact the library or archives directly (or visit them in person) to see if they have what you need.

2. Library Catalog: Use the Hedberg Library Catalog to search for print resources available in the Carthage Library or via our databases. In the library catalog, enter keywords pertaining to your research topic. You may also include keywords that indicate the type of resource you want (e.g. biography, diary, speech, etc.). For example, search for "biography AND 19th century AND Norway" or "Argentina AND women AND speech".

3. Library Databases: Use a specific database to which the library subscribes. Each database is different, but in some cases, you can narrow your search by choosing only to search "primary sources." For example, in the Advanced Search options of the  Academic Search Complete database, you may scroll down to Publication Type and choose "Primary Source Document."

* Please take a look at this compilation of History Best Bets Databases by Hedberg Libray for a great list of history databases.

4. Primary Sources Websites: As noted above, some archives post their collections online for researchers to access. Consult the tabs above (Websites with Primary Resources, Newspapers) for examples of these collections. You may search or browse for primary source content.

5. Google: If your topic isn't represented in the resource lists provided, you may use Google to find relevant archival collections or sources. Just be sure to look closely to verify that the items are primary resources. While this guide has collected a great number of primary source collections that are freely available on the Internet, there are many others just waiting for you to find them!

Google allows you to combine terms in various ways to focus your search to highly relevant items. For example, compare the results of these two searches for primary source material related to medieval weaponry; the first search is how most students would search Google, the second is much more targeted.

1) medieval weapons

2) (medieval OR "middle ages") (war OR weapons) ("primary source" OR documents) (site:.edu OR site:.org)

Be creative when entering keywords, and think of possible synonyms or related terms that might retrieve items of interest. For "primary sources", for example, you might also try "historical documents" or one of the catalog terms shown at left.

Google Search Tips:

  • Use quotes " " to search for specific terms, phrases, or names. 
  • Use parentheses ( ) to combine like terms.
  • Use OR (all capitals) to find either word; use AND (all capitals) to require both words.
  • Narrow your search to specific domains. Adding site:.edu (site colon dot edu, no spaces) to your keywords will search only educational sites. Other common domains to use are .gov (U.S. government) and .org (organizations).
  • Subtract terms you don't want to have in the results (-). Example: "trade routes" -coffee (no space between dash and second word).

4. After finding primary sources on your topic, you will need to analyze those sources to determine their significance and relevance to your project (see worksheets from the National Archives at the right).

5. Write your paper!

Library Catalog - Find books, journal articles, videos, and more

Library Catalog

Find books, journal articles, videos, and more.


Examples of Primary Sources

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Interviews, letters, diaries, oral histories, journals
  • Census records, polls
  • Obituaries
  • Autobiographies
  • Experiments
  • Observations or field notes
  • Clinical studies
  • Novels, plays, poems (both published and in manuscript form)
  • Television shows, movies, videos
  • Paintings, photographs, drawings

National Archives Worksheets

National Archives Primary Source Analysis Worksheets

After locating appropriate primary sources, you will need to analyze and interpret them. The National Archives website offers analysis worksheets that can help you to determine the significance of primary source documents.

Keyword Searching Examples

Keyword Search Examples

The following keywords can be added to your library search to narrow your results to primary sources:

  • archival resources
  • archives
  • atlases
  • bibliography
  • biography
  • broadsides
  • case studies
  • charts, diagrams
  • concordances
  • correspondence
  • daguerreotypes
  • diaries
  • engravings
  • handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • illustrations
  • indexes
  • manuscripts
  • maps
  • newspapers
  • periodicals
  • personal narratives
  • photograph collections
  • photographs
  • pictorial works
  • portraits
  • prints
  • sermons
  • sources
  • speeches, addresses, etc.
  • statistics