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Introduction to Archival Research

An introductory overview of archival research at the Kellen Design Archives and other archives.

Helpful Glossary and Intro to Research Practices

The Society of American Archivists provides online access to a free glossary of archival terms. Some of these terms are only used by archivists, but many terms are commonly used when conducting archival research.

We also strongly encourage first-time users of archives to review this guide published by the Society of American Archivists.


Basic Definitions and Concepts

  1. What exactly are archives?

An archive is a collection of primary sources. It can also be the place (a building or a department or a virtual location) where the primary sources are stored. Archivists (people who work in archives) often refer to the place where the primary sources 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 sources?

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. Primary sources can be analog, physical objects or digital objects.

3. When would I use primary sources?

You would usually use primary materials in a research project after consulting secondary sources (books, journal articles, documentaries, etc.) on a topic. The primary sources will enable you to build upon prior research and provide your own interpretation, or respond to a previous interpretation. 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.

Sometimes, however, you might first consult primary sources. This is especially true if you are seeking inspiration or are not sure how to proceed with your research. The primary sources may spark your creativity or lead you to ask questions that will guide your research in a new direction. You might not know which research questions to ask. Examining primary sources can sometimes help you focus on a topic.