Getting Started: Basics of Archival Research
The Society of American Archivists offers this overview on effective research in archives for those without prior archival research experience. This guide provides general information and is not specific to SIU's University Archives. You will find information on:
- How archives are different from libraries
- Policies and procedures to expect when researching with archival materials
- Resources on locating archival, manuscript, or special collections repositories
- Copyright and access restrictions commonly found in archives
- Planning a visit and visiting archival, manuscript, or special collections repositories
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Primary sources are the building blocks of history. They are records created by individuals and organizations that provide first hand, contemporaneous accounts of an event or topic. Primary sources can also be eyewitness testimony, recollections recorded in an oral history, memoirs, and autobiographies.
Primary sources comprise the bulk of the material in the University Archives and includes, but not limited to:
- Records from numerous university departments and offices
- Official university publications such as the Board of Trustees annual reports, course catalogs (formerly called the Bulletin), various departmental reports, and the Obelisk yearbook
- Photograph collections documenting student life and organizations, faculty and staff, sports, campus buildings, and various campus events
- Faculty papers documenting the teaching, research, and service activities of noteworthy Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty
- Architectural drawings or renderings of campus buildings and infrastructure
- Daily Egyptian newspapers
- Sound recordings such as oral histories and WSIU Radio broadcasts
- Motion picture film
Secondary sources are not created contemporaneously to an event or topic. They are created using primary sources and include resources such as textbooks, monographs, journal articles, biographies, commentaries, reviews, and criticisms. The secondary sources found in University Archives include publications within faculty papers, histories on Southern Illinois University, and student dissertations, theses, and research papers.
How to Read a Finding Aid
The catalog record for archival collections are called Finding Aids. These help researchers know what types of materials and topics can be found in a collection. Finding Aids can be confusing for first time users but the information below will help explain the most important parts. Below is a screen shot of our Archon database showing the basic parts of a typical finding aid.
Click on Creators and then the name link to learn more about the creator of a collection, in this case George E. Axtelle. Information about the creator of a collection provides contextual information about the "by who," "where," and "why" the records in the collection were created. Sometimes creator information can also be found in the Administrative/Biographical History.
The Scope and Content note is typically 1-3 paragraphs describing the collection itself including topics covered, date spans, record formats, subjects, and (sometimes) how the collection has been organized. Information on how the collection is organized can also be found by clicking the Arrangement link.
Many collections are organized into series while some simply have a box and folder container list. In this example, George E. Axtelle's collection is arranged into 4 series. A series is a grouping of records that share a common theme, which can be topical such as American Humanist Association, or can reflect a record format such as Correspondence or Publications.
By clicking on a series link you can see the details of what is in the collection presented in a list of boxes and folders. A series sometimes has its own scope and content note that further highlights various topics or aspects of its content. Clicking an individual series link will show the content of that series, but clicking Detailed Description will show the entire finding aid and all series at one time.