Archives and the Use of Primary Source Materials


 Using Primary Sources
 Using Archives
 Major Archives and Archive Portals
 Resources by Subject

History is not what happened in the past. It is, as the word itself suggests, a story, written by subsequent generations. The veracity and accuracy of the account, however, is totally dependent upon the surviving record at hand—documents, manuscripts, letters, publications, photos, and memorabilia—from which the story must often be pieced together and reconstructed, item by item, clue by clue. This is true whether the work is medical research done by scientists, or a family genealogy sought by a curious individual. From students to scholars, business professionals to creative artists, we are all in constant need of access to information, not only from the past, but of the present. With the rapid increase in high-tech communications—satellite links, computer modems, e-mail, and the like—Marshall McLuhan's view of the world as a global village has shrunk to that of a single, multilingual, multicultural neighborhood. 

As a result we are bombarded with information from around the world every day, buried under an avalanche of paper, inundated with electronic messages. As individuals, we frequently choose what we need to use at a particular moment, and discard the rest. But everything we create in the act of communication, formal or informal—every memo, snapshot, blueprint, magazine article, cartoon, videotape, radio and television broadcast, or CD-ROM—is part of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, forming a picture of our civilization that changes according to one's perspective and potential use. How much of that picture will be available for future generations to know us and learn from us—just as we attempt to reconstruct a picture of the past for our own enlightenment? Each piece of the puzzle becomes invaluable, and what is not saved is lost, possibly forever. 

John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States

History in the Raw 1
Adapted from Digital Classroom of the National Archives and Records Administration

Documents--diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs--created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even the   best-written article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources exposes students to im portant historical concepts. First, students become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature.

Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills. To many students, history is seen as a series of facts, dates, and events usually packaged as a textbook. The use of primary sources can change this view. As students use primary sources they begin to view their textbook as only one historical interpretation and its author as an interpreter of evidence, not as a purveyor of truth. For example, as students read personal letters from distressed  farmers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they look at WPA administrators' reports on economic conditions in Pennsylvania and Oregon, or as they listen to recordings of government-produced radio dramas, they weigh the significance of these sources against such generalizations as that provided by Todd and Curti: "The most urgent task that Roosevelt faced when he took office was to provide food, clothing, and shelter for millions of jobless, hungry, cold, despairing Americans." Students begin to understand that such generalizations represent an interpretation of past events, but not necessarily the only interpretation. They become aware that the text has a point of view that does not make it incorrect but that does render it subject to question. Primary sources force students to realize that any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective.

As students read eyewitness accounts of events at Little Big Horn or letters to congressmen expressing concern about woman suffrage, or look at photographs from the Civil War and then attempt to summarize their findings, they become aware of the subjective nature of their conclusions. The disagreements among students in interpreting these documents are not unlike those among historians.

Through primary sources students confront two essential facts in studying history. First, the record of historical events reflects the personal, social, political, or economic points of view of the participants. Second, students bring to the sources their own biases, created by their own personal situations and the social environments in which they live. As students use these sources, they realize that history exists through interpretation--and tentative interpretation at that.

Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history is humanized through them. Using original sources, students touch the lives of the people about whom history is written. They participate in human emotions and in the values and attitudes of the past. By reading a series of public opinion surveys from World War II, for example, students confront the language of the person interviewed and his or her fears about shortages, as well as the interviewer's reactions recorded after the interview. These human expressions provide history with color and excitement and link students directly to its cast of characters.

Interpreting historical sources helps students to analyze and evaluate contemporary sources--newspaper reports, television and radio programs, and advertising. By using primary sources, students learn to recognize how a point of view and a bias affect evidence, what contradictions and other limitations exist within a given source, and to what extent sources are reliable. Essential among these skills is the ability to understand and make appropriate use of many  sources of information. Development of these skills is important not only to historical research but also to a citizenship where people are able to evaluate the information needed to maintain a free society.

Perhaps best of all, by using primary sources, students will participate in the process of history. They will debate with teachers and classmates about the interpretation of the sources. They will challenge others' conclusions and seek out evidence to support their own. The classroom will become a lively arena in which students test and apply important analytical skills.

Where to Find Primary Sources

To introduce your students to primary sources, you might begin with materials that they themselves possess, such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, or drivers' licenses. What do these sources tell us about the individuals and the society in which they live? How might these sources be used by historians? Consider how school, employment, medical, and family records could be used to develop generalizations about twentieth-century student life.

Beyond personal records, there are a variety of other sources available. Where can you locate documentation on your neighborhood or community? Your sources can be both governmental and private: Federal census figures, newspapers, local government files, personal diaries, and interviews with longtime residents. In most cities and towns, local historical groups, preservation societies, and museums serve as excellent starting points for classes locating documentary materials about local communities. On the state level, historical societies, archives, and museums are valuable depositories for useful primary materials. Many of these agencies offer specific programs for high school students, and many would welcome suggestions for joint projects.

At the federal level, materials and training courses are available from the National Archives. In addition to document based materials for the classroom teacher, the National Archives runs an 8-day summer workshop for educators: Primarily Teaching. In this workshop, teachers of all levels use National Archives Records to develop units based on topics of their choice and design. It is not necessary to take a course, however, to turn your classroom into an active history laboratory. Local resources and teacher imagination are enough. When students and teachers participate together in the exciting and evolving process of historical inquiry, returns, in terms of knowledge, skills and interest, can be great and lasting.

History in the raw. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed 1 Aug. 2002.

See also:
Finding Historical Primary Sources --

Using Primary Sources on the Web -

Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers 2
From ArchiNet: Online Research Tool (National Archive of Canada)
    Experienced travellers take time to learn something about their intended destination before leaving home. By knowing what to expect in terms of language and customs they are able to adapt and enjoy their stay.
    First-time archives users frequently experience something of a culture shock as they struggle to adapt to new concepts and procedures. Their expectations of what an archives should be are based on their experience of libraries. Most of us tend to equate the two, but there are significant differences between them.
    This guide is intended to introduce new users to some of the "customs" of archives. As with a visit to any new locale you can ensure a more productive and pleasant time by being prepared.

    The many differences between archives and libraries can be traced to one central and all-encompassing fact: the nature of the material collected by archives is fundamentally different from that found in libraries.
    Libraries collect published material, also known as secondary sources. The holdings of one library may be duplicated in whole or in part by the holdings of another. If a book is lost or stolen it  probably can be replaced.
    Archives collect original unpublished material or primary sources. The records held by archives are unique and irreplaceable. By their very nature archival materials are fragile and vulnerable to improper handling. If an archival document is lost, stolen, or irreparably damaged, the information it contains is lost forever.
    The unique nature of archival material has led archives to develop stringent security procedures. Researchers cannot browse through the stacks as they do in a library, and archival material can only be consulted in supervised reading rooms. As well, a myriad of rules govern how documents must be handled. These regulations usually are explained as part of the admission process and first-time researchers adapt quickly to these aspects of their new environment.
    Practices related to the arrangement and description of archival material are more perplexing, particularly since the archival profession, like every other, has developed its own jargon. Some knowledge of basic concepts and terminology, of the language and customs of archives can help the new user to feel at home.

    Archives are concerned with archival fonds — all of the documents created and/or accumulated and used by a person, family, government institutions, or corporate body in the course of that creator's activities or functions. Since archives acquire documents in any medium that records information, the format of collections may be diverse and may include letters and diaries, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, computer tape, video and audio cassettes. The size of a collection may range from a single document to hundreds or even thousands of metres of material.
    Archivists frequently distinguish between record groups and manuscript groups. A record group would include the various media created as part of its activities by a government agency or other institution. A manuscript group refers to the papers of an individual or private agency containing information about numerous diverse topics and, unlike library material, cannot be organized physically by subject.
    The work of arranging archival materials is based on two principles: provenance and respect for original order. The principle of provenance requires that the archives of an organization or person not be mixed or combined with the archives of another. For example, if an archives holds the records of two theatre companies it would not consolidate the records even though both are involved in the same artistic endeavour and both create similar records. This practice also is referred to as respect des fonds or respect for the source or creator. The principle of original order requires that archives preserve or recreate the order in which documents were created, maintained and/or used by the creator or office of origin. If, for example, the administrative office of a religious denomination maintained files alphabetically by name of congregation, that order would be maintained or, if necessary, reconstructed by the archives. Original order is most obvious in institutional records where organization and the need for easy retrieval were prime considerations in their creation and use. Private manuscripts and papers often show little discernible evidence of original order. The creator may have been happy to keep papers in a shoe box or bottom drawer. Original order is, of necessity, a more flexible rule than provenance. Where it is obvious that no particular order existed or when the order in which records were created cannot be recreated, archivists may leave the material in the order in which it was received or an order may be imposed to facilitate research.

Finding Aids
    We are all familiar with the card catalogue, the subject index which is the main access tool to library collections. Finding Aids are the tools which provide access to archival material. These take many different forms and serve a variety of purposes. The type and level of sophistication of finding aids in a given archives will depend on the resources of the agency. Some common finding aids are described below.
    Guides to Holdings provide a ready reference to the complex holdings of institutions. These consist of an abstract of the information included in the descriptive inventory and give an overview of each collection. Guides may also focus on particular subjects, time or places. Guides allow the researcher to identify those collections which will be of value to their research. They can then consult the descriptive inventories for more detailed descriptions. Guides to holdings are often published. These are of particular value to researchers who cannot easily visit an archives.
    The Descriptive Inventory is the most common type of finding aid which the researcher will encounter. The inventory provides detailed information on the organization and activities of the agency or person that created the records and on the physical extent, chronological scope and subject content of the records. Lists of box and file titles and other descriptive material may also be included.
    Lists provide box or file titles, names, places or subject information in alphabetical, chronological or other order. Box or file lists are often appended to inventories.
    Indexes, adaptations from the library world, are the finding aids researchers are most comfortable using. The main entry card identifies each separate accession. Other added entry index cards lead the researcher to that accession from a variety of subjects places, people and events. An accession is a group of records from the same source taken into the custody of an archives at the same time. Since indexes are time consuming to produce, this type of finding aid is most often associated with large well funded agencies. The Accession Register is designed to establish control over material as it enters the archives. It is intended largely as an internal administrative document. However, it does contain elements of description and in some situations, particularly small volunteer managed archives, it may be the only finding aid available to researchers.

    Reproduction of archival material is subject to the terms and conditions of [copyright laws]. This is a highly complex area for both archives and researchers. However, the researcher is responsible for determining copyright ownership and obtaining permission to publish any copyrighted materials.
    Copyright can be owned or held by an individual, a corporation, or the public, depending on the age, nature and disposition of the material in question. The diffficulty for both archives an researchers lies in determining who holds copyright, whether they are still alive or when they died, and if they have made special arrangements for the transfer or maintenance of copyright.
    Public archives ... and other collecting archives hold material for which the ownership of copyright may be uncertain. In-house archives generally own the copyright of the material they hold. Researchers should allow adequate lead time for researching ownership and obtaining permission to copy or publish.

    Archival material is more complex to identify than books or journal articles making the accuracy of citations more critical. Many archives provide instructions on how best to footnote their holdings.
    As a general rule of thumb, the first reference in a footnote is to the individual item. The series, group and name of archives follow. This is the reverse to note taking. Footnotes will vary according to the type of material being cited. When in doubt, seek the advice of archival staff.

Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers. National Archives of Canada/Archives nationales du Canada. Accessed 1 Aug. 2002

Digital Documents Online and Archive Portals

National (U.S. and Canada)

The Learning Page for American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library --
American Memory is a Web site created by the Library of Congress. It provides public access to more than 7 million historical items, presented in over 100 thematic collections through the World Wide Web. These items reflect the collective American memory, its history and culture and include unique and rare documents, photographs, films, and audio recordings. The sections in this Web site are designed to help users search the American Memory collections and to use its items to enrich education. The following tools are offered to help you search the American Memory collections.
National Archives and Records Administration (U.S.) Archival Information Locator --
National Archives of Canada Digital Collections --

State of California
California State Archives Collections --
Getting Started with the Online Archive of California --
How to Use the California Heritage Collection --
Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives Collection Guides --
Museums and the Online Archives of California --
Free Speech Movement Digital Archive --

Archive Directories and Portals
Google Directory of Archives --
Google Directory of State Archives --
Repositories of Primary Sources --
UNESCO Archives Portal --

Resources by Subject:

American History


World History


Speeches/Oral History

Editorial Cartoons

Return to the Redwood Cybrary Home Page | Social Studies Page |
Updated by the Webspinner: Tuesday, June 1, 2010

c2007- TUHSD, Tom Kaun, Teacher Librarian -- Bessie Chin Library @ Redwood High School, 395 Doherty Drive, Larkspur, CA 94939 -- 415.945.3662