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Introduction to Archival Research

Get started understanding how to find and use archival collections in your school work, professional research, or family research.

Evaluating primary sources

There are a number of questions you could consider when analyzing primary source material. It is not necessary to thoroughly address every question below for each document you use. Instead, consider which of these questions may be relevant to understanding and evaluating the sources you choose. 


  • Who created this document?
    • What is their background or perspective?
  • Was it created in the auspices of an organization, institution, or corporation?
    • What was the mission or position of the organization?


  • Who was this document created for?
    • For example:
      • A personal letter to a friend
      • An inter-office memo
      • A pamphlet to circulate to a specific demographic


  • What was the original intention of the document?
    • For example:
      • To track a financial debt
      • To solicit political support
      • To explain how to program a new microwave and to absolve the manufacturer from liability in case of injury from misuse

Historical and cultural context

  • What circumstances of the historical period are relevant to understanding this document?
    • Consider: cultural, political, economic, material, and technological conditions

Provenance and collection context

  • How did this document become part of this archival collection? 
    • Is it an original document from the colletction creator or was it acquired by the collection creator from another source? 
  • How does this document relate to other material in the archival collection it is found?
  • How was document identified or filed by the collection creator? Is it arranged into a specific series?* 
    • For example:
      • UFO photographs in a folder labeled "Air Force Research" vs.
      • UFO photographs in a personal letter about a recent vacation

* See the Arrangment Note or Scope/Content Note in the Finding Aid to learn if series and folder titles were original to the collection or derived by the archivist

  • What was the chain of custody of this document? Who may have had it, used it, or altered it, between its original creator and its current place in the archives?
  • Does the creator have reasonable authority on this topic? How did the creator obtain the information within the document?
  • Is there other data or evidence that can confirm or support the information in this document? 
  • Is this the original version of this document or is it a copy or facsimile? How does it compare to other copies of the document? 
  • Is there more to this document than you have now? 
    • For example:
      • A manuscript draft with missing footnotes
      • A letter that references an attachment that is not included

Finally, evaluating primary sources from archival collections involves keeping another very important question in mind: What evidence is missing from this document, collection, or story? See the "Archival silences" tab above for more. 



Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B