Skip to Main Content
Pollak Library

University Archives & Special Collections

A guide to our collections, primary sources, and finding and accessing materials in UA&SC

Starting Your Research

Archives terminology

Primary Source Formats come in all different shapes and sizes and include:

Books, periodicals, newspapers, magazines, maps, art, government documents, visual materials, sound recordings, moving images, manuscripts and archives from individuals and organizations, correspondence in print and electronic formats (email, text messages, and postcards).

Some commonly used terms you should familiarize yourself with when doing your research are:

Archivesrecords created or received by a person, family, or organization and preserved because of their continuing value inactive records of continuing value the organically created records of continuing value, particularly when the organization itself maintains the records non-record material selected, preserved, managed, presented, and used in the same manner as archives.

ManuscriptsA collection of personal or family papers. Although manuscript literally means handwritten, 'manuscript collection' is often used to include collections of mixed media in which unpublished materials predominate. They may also include typescripts, photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, news clippings, and printed works.

Personal Papers1. Records created and originally kept by an individual. 2. Documents unrelated to work but maintained at a place of work by an employee of the United States federal government.

Finding Aidsa description that typically consists of contextual and structural information about an archival resource.


Research involves collecting a diverse range of materials that may include primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

What does this mean?

Primary Sources are original materials created during a given historical period and represent the ideas, thoughts, and attitudes of individuals, organizations, and government. Original sources record actual experience and are the foundation for scholarly research. Primary sources vary widely by format and definition of a primary source will vary by discipline.

Examples of Primary Sources:

  • Autobiographies, memoirs, books, and monographs
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Diaries, Journals, Scrapbooks, Ephemera
  • Correspondence including letters, email, text messages, and postcards
  • Government documents, census data, and published reports
  • Newspapers, periodicals, magazines, scholarly journals
  • Machine readable data files
  • Music, maps, architectural records
  • Visual materials that include art work, photographs, posters, prints, and digital images
  • Moving images and sound recordings that include film and oral histories
  • Printed ephemera, objects, and artifacts

Secondary Sources:

  • Use primary sources to answer research questions, solve problems, and to interpret the past
  • Secondary sources include books, monographs, and articles
  • Some secondary sources may be considered primary for the artifactual nature or research value of the work. 

Tertiary Sources:

Sources that interpret or present information for general readers. Examples include textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and digital resources such as Wikipedia.

The way in which scholars use primary and Secondary Sources varies greatly. While a book or monograph is generally treated as secondary source, it may have artifactual value, while visual (photographic) materials are frequently treated as documents. Likewise, oral histories and memoirs are treated as primary sources even though the recording or publication takes places many years after the events transpired.

See Robert C. Williams, The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History (M.E. Sharpe, 2007)

How to begin your primary source research

Keyword searching can be effective, but if you're struggling to find materials try asking yourself these questions:

  • Who are some notable people relevant to my research topic?
  • Are there any notable geographic locations relevant to my research topic?
  • Is there a relevant time period to my research topic?
  • What are some significant organizations relevant to my research topic?
  • Was there a major event associated with my research topic?

Answers to these questions is often the most effective strategy to use when doing archival research.