What is an archives?
Archives hold historical records of organizations and individuals. Archives differ from libraries in that their collections do not circulate and may not be checked out. Additionally, their records are unique; a letter or photograph held by an archives may be the only one in existence. The size of a collection in the archives can range from a single item to hundreds of boxes.
What kinds of records are in an archives?
The records may be in many different formats, including documents, photographs, audio, film, maps, and architectural drawings. Records reflect the everyday activities of the agency or person who created them, but they may be used by researchers for an entirely different purpose than that for which they were created. For example, the State of Washington conducted legal hearings in the early 20th century and other time periods for the purpose of determining water rights on watersheds throughout the state. The verbatim transcripts of these hearings are now useful as early "oral histories" of agricultural development, irrigation, flood control and even of the personal lives of individuals.
What types of archives are there?
Archival repositories are diverse. They can be located in federal, state, and local governments; schools, colleges, and universities; religious institutions; businesses; labor unions; hospitals; museums and historical societies.
What does an archivist do?
Archivists preserve and provide access to these historical records. This involves identifying and selecting permanent records due to their enduring value, then arranging those records to make them usable and housing them in acid-free materials in order to aid in their long-term preservation. Archivists often create guides to collections to provide information about the scope of the records as well as contextual information about why, how, and by whom they were created. They also provide reference services and help researchers find records that are relevant to their areas of interest. Additionally, archivists create exhibits, publications, and other outreach programs to increase awareness about the records in the archives.
What is a primary source?
A primary source is a document - a letter, photograph, diary, manuscript, financial record, book, or even a quotation - that was written or created in the time period you're researching by people who took part in or witnessed the event documented. A letter home from a soldier who witnessed a battle would be a primary source of information on that battle. Years later, a historian might try to reconstruct the events of the same battle from soldiers' letters. That would be a secondary source.
What is a secondary source?
Researchers and historians use primary sources to create secondary sources, which are created at a later date than the events described, or created by people who did not witness the event. A history textbook is a good example of a secondary source. So is a paper, project, or presentation that comes out of the primary source research you do. Although your project will have been created at a later time than the event, person, or place you researched and is therefore a secondary source, you will have used documents and pieces of evidence from the past - primary sources - as the basis for your project.
What are some examples of primary sources?
- film or video recordings (such as home movies)
- audio recordings (such as an oral history interview)
- records of government agencies (such as annual reports or memoranda)
- advertisements or posters
- artifacts (such as objects or clothing)
- books (such as autobiographies)
Why primary sources?
Primary sources are useful for a number of reasons. Often, a source such as a letter, diary, or even photograph will reflect the point of view of the person who created it. Make sure you are aware of any biases in a primary source document - ask yourself who created it and why - but being aware of various viewpoints on historical events can help you understand the events themselves. Furthermore, primary sources allow you to look into the past and to build on what you already know of events, people, or places. The primary source documents - letters, photographs, and other forms - bring you closer to the events, people, and places described.
When searching for primary sources, it is helpful to think about who might have created the documents you are looking for. Materials in archives are usually kept together not by subject, but by who created them.
For more information on primary sources, check out these sites:
- Library of Congress Learning Page
This site includes not only definitions of primary and secondary sources, but also detailed discussions of different types of sources and tools for evaluating their quality.
- The Ohio Historical Society
This site defines primary and secondary sources and gives you a list of questions you might want to ask yourself when doing research with primary sources.
What is a Finding Aid?
A finding aid is a written guide to a collection that describes what is in the collection and how it is arranged, as well as giving context for how, why, and by whom the documents in the collection were created. Finding aids can be helpful tools for researchers in determining whether or not a set of records is relevant to their research topic, and can also help them navigate the collection to find the records most likely to be useful for their topic. Contents of the collection will be listed at the folder level, as archival documents are generally not cataloged item by item.
Finding aids at repositories throughout Washington state often contain the following elements:
- Overview of the collection: Similar to a title page for a book, this section contains general information about the collection, including title, creator, collection size, dates covered by the materials, collection number, and a very brief summary of the contents.
- Historical or biographical note: Provides historical information about the creator of the records. In cases where the records were primarily compiled by a particular person, biographical information will generally be included.
- Content description: Summarizes the contents of the collection, including types of materials (e.g., letters, reports, photographs) and topics covered (e.g., water pollution, dams, flood control, irrigation, etc.).
- Arrangement: Some finding aids will include explanations of how the records are arranged, and/or listings of subgroups into which the collection has been organized.
- Administrative information/Use of the collection: These sections may include any restrictions on access to the collection, notes on related materials in other collections, the preferred method of citation for the records, and other administrative notes.
- Subjects: Much like a library catalog, the finding aids include subject headings representing topics covered by the records.
- Detailed description of the collection: The last section of the finding aid will list the contents of the collection, usually at the folder level. A title, date, and box and folder number are provided for each file; noting the box and folder numbers of files you are interested in looking at will help a repository's staff retrieve them for you. For larger collections, this section of the finding aid may also include content descriptions of individual series of records.