Teaching and Research with Archival Collections

This guide will help students and faculty learn how to find relevant archival collections, work with archivists, and design assignments, activities, and research projects with archival materials.

What Are Archives?

"What's past is prologue" Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act II, Scene ii, lines 253-254

Archives are the stewards of primary source materials. These repositories are as varied as the materials that they house. Archives can be found in a respected college or university, a local historical society or museum, or even in an institutional setting such as a corporate headquarters. Archival materials can include physical artifacts; visual materials such as photographs, paintings and film; as well as paper artifacts with examples ranging from private papers, diaries, journals, maps and business ledgers to unpublished manuscript materials.  

In addition to the thousands of physical archives in the United States, 21st century technology has brought many of these diverse collections into our home or office, providing virtual access to a myriad of primary source materials. Many collections housed by major libraries have been digitized, providing access to the researcher day or night. In addition, libraries can subscribe to commercially-produced archival databases, which allows researchers to access even more digitized primary source materials.

What Is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a first person account of an event. It can refer to original documents, research, or physical objects, and can include (but is not limited to) diaries, speeches, letters, newspapers, photographs, artwork, and manuscript materials.

By contrast, a secondary source usually synthesizes or analyzes primary sources or data. Examples include a history monograph, an economics article, or a study analyzing census data.

Images from the Baruch College Archives

Image of dust removal truck reading "The Way-Cleanse Co., Sandusky, O.," in front of numerous poster advertisements.

Dust removal trucks in St. Louis ca. 1910s, from the Institute of Public Administration Collection.

What is an Archive? (El Centro)

What is an archive? (National Archives UK)

Types of Archival Collections

When many people imagine archival collections, they think of dusty books and boxes of old paperwork. Although many collections focus on materials such as these, archival collections in fact contain a variety of types of materials.

In addition to collecting written artifacts of the past, archives also acquire photographs, maps, and tangible material objects. Repositories may even contain archives within an archive, such as those housed in museums where one can find examples of furniture, household objects or clothing. In addition, digital objects are increasingly becoming part of the historical record.

By looking at these objects as "materials" of the past, we can interpret/suggest/theorize how they embody the life of the individuals and the society that used them.

About Me

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Jessica Wagner Webster
Newman Library, 523