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Introduction to Primary Source Research

Contains tips and tools for beginnnng research with primary sources.

Libraries versus Archives

Libraries and archives both exist as institutions designed to hold information, and in most cases, prepare that information for access to their users. They differ in several ways that can  impact research.

Libraries contain mostly collections of books and are organized and supported for use and access. Material can be accessed at the library, online, or checked out for use at home.

Archives also strive to provide access to patrons, but the type of material held and the access methods differ from libraries. Archives contain both published and unpublished material in many different formats including, manuscripts, photos, letters, sound recordings, art, artifacts, and much more. Collections in archives are organized not for ease of access by users but to preserve and maintain the quality of their material for use by researchers now and in the future.

Understanding Archives

There are several different types of archives, each prioritizing a specific content and/or material type. Knowing the difference can aid researchers in knowing where to begin their research.

College and University Archives – College archives seek to collect and preserve material related to a specific academic institution. They serve the larger institution they are a part of, alumni, and the public. 

Corporate Archives – These archives are usually a department within a company or corporation, they preserve material necessary for the needs of the company, staff, or business goals. These allow differing levels of access depending on individual company policy and staff availability. 

Government Archives – These repositories collect material related to local, state, or federal government. They provide relatively open access to the public depending on the material requested. 

Historical Societies and Community Archives – Historical societies seek to preserve a specific historical aspect of a region, period, community, etc.  In general, access is available to the public. In some cases, they may have government holdings.  

Museums –  Museums have similar goals as archives in terms of preservation, but they focus more on exhibitions. Repositories may have an attached museum and museums may have an associated archive or special collections library. 

Religious Archives –  These archives specialize in the traditions or institutions of a faith denomination or place of worship. Some are open to the public, while others only serve members of the faith group they represent. 

Special Collections – These institutions contain a variety of materials from individuals, families, organizations, etc. which are deigned to have historical value. Subject matter often varies widely. In addition, these libraries are often a branch or department within a larger institution and holds their most valuable or rarest materials.  

A Glossary of Useful Terms


Archives and special collection libraries often use different vocabularly when describing their collections. Many of these terms are not intuitive and may confuse new users. This glossary should help provide some context for the most used terms. 


Abstract - A concise summart of the key points of a larger work, often used to assist the researcher in determining if the work will be of use. 

Archival Collection - A set of archival materials, sometimes assembled by person, organization, repository, format, or theme. May be a compilation of materials from different sources and of unrelated format. 

Accession Number - A number or code assigned to identify a group of records or material acquired by a repository and used to link the materials to associated records. 

Box - A container approproate for the long-term storage of archival materials. Size and content may vary but in general the boxes are the size of a document box. This can be used to comprehend the size of a collection as many archives list the number of boxes within a collection.  

Bulk Dates - The earliest and latest dates of the majority of materials within a particular collection. These can differ from inclusive dates and are useful when inclusive dates are misleading. 

Call Number/ Collection ID - A unique combination of letters and numbers used to identify an item or collection to allow retrieval and organized storage. These can be seen within catalogs and usually need to be provided to repositories when requesting materials. 

Finding Aid/ Collection Guide - A description that consists of contextual information about an archival resource. It usually consolidates information about a collection including acquisition, provenancs, history, scope of collection, etc. 

Inclusive Dates - The dats of the odest and most recent items in a collection, series or folder. 

Linear Feet - Used in an archive to measure the size of a collection, a measurement of 12 inches. Rather that state the size of a collection by the number of items it contains, archives note collection size by describing the physical space it occupies.

Manuscript/ mss. - A manuscript often reders to a handwritten or unpublished document such as a letter, diary, or personal notes. It may also refer to an author's draft of a book or article. The comonly used abbreviation is mss. 

Papers - Used to identify archival materials, usually records created and originally kept by an individual or family. 

Provenance - Information that details the origin, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.

Repository - A space or institution focused on the care and storage or items. Used to describe both the physical space of stored items, digital and physical, or the organization that controls those items. It can be used as a descriptor for an archive.

Series - A group of similar records arranged according to a filing system that are related as a result of being created, recieved, or used in teh same activity. Each item has its own title, also bearing a collective title for the group as a whole. 

Archives at Indiana University


Indiana University Bloomington has many individual archives and special collections that students have access to. Each contain their own content generally focused on a particular topic or medium. The descriptions, links, contact information are below. Keep in mind that requests may take several weeks to process.