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A Research Guide: From the Secondary Source to the Primary Source

Definition of Terms


The term "archives" can be used to mean different things:

  1. The non-current records of a private or public organization or institution preserved because of their continuing value; archival materials can be any physical medium which is designed to transmit information. Archival materials include: handwritten, type written and computer generated documents as well as photographs, drawings, maps, architectural records, audio or video tapes, and electronic formats such as computer tapes/disks.
  2. The "agency or program" responsible for selecting, preserving, and making available archival materials.
  3. The "building" or part of a building where archival materials are located.

Bibliographic Citation:

The information contained in a catalog record that describes an item. It contains information about the author, title, publisher, number of pages, size, illustrations, and format of the item being described.


A reading list, a guide for further study, or a list of works which have been consulted by the author.

Contemporary Accounts:

Accounts written during the time period an event takes place. It differs from an eyewitness account in that the person isn't necessarily at the event that is described in the written account.

Finding Aids:

The descriptive guide, both published and unpublished, created to establish physical, administrative or intellectual control over records and other holdings. Finding aids can include guides, inventories, checklists, card catalogs, indexes, calendars and box lists.


Notes documenting the text, and corresponding to reference numbers in the text.

Manuscript Collections:

A body of original source materials (often including personal papers) relating to an individual, family, or organization acquired because of their historical significance.

Personal Papers:

The natural accumulation of original documents, created by an individual or family, most often in the form of handwritten or typed materials.

Primary sources:

Primary Sources are first-hand accounts of an event, a person's life, original works of literature, and historical facts. They are in their original form, usually without explanation or interpretation. Primary sources can be letters, diaries, court records, speeches and photographs.

Reference Source:

A reference source is any tool that provides information about a research topic. They include reference books -- indexes, bibliographies, directories, biographical dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases - electronic databases, web sites, and CD-ROMs.

Research Process:

The research process is the method or path one takes to explore and examine resources related to a particular topic or subject.

Secondary sources:

Secondary sources are often written by people who were not present when the event occurred. They are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. Secondary sources are based on a variety of other sources and can include; books, journal articles, textbooks, and reference sources.

Special Collections:

A part of an organization or institution, which preserves, describes and makes available rare or unique materials. They are usually found in a university setting. The materials of a "special collection" aren't necessarily part of the permanent record of the activities of the holding institution; they are collections that contain items that fit the general mission and collecting policy of the institution. Often the Archives and Special Collections are housed in the same space.

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