|This page in a nutshell: This is a 101 guide to archival sources. If you are interested in research that goes beyond published material, or if you want to verify published content through original sources, archives can help. Archives collect and preserve original records of notable figures and organisations. Finding aids, if available, can help you find the information you need. Archival material is usually available in person at the Archives, but can sometimes be accessed online. Note: while archival material (mostly primary sources) can enable deep research, they should not be directly cited on Wikipedia if they require contextual interpretation (WP:PRIMARY).|
An archive is: 1) an accumulation of historical records, or 2) the physical place that holds those records.
Archives collect and manage original records of notable figures, communities, and organisations. These records may come in many forms—including letters, registers, photographs, maps, and sound/video recordings—and are selected for preservation based on their cultural, historical, or evidentiary value. In other words, archives hold primary sources that can be used for research and fact-checking, among other purposes. Generally, institutions will host material on notable individuals and groups who were connected to the institution and/or material within their topical specialisations.
Many—especially professional—archives are created by official bodies (governments, education institutions, businesses). Some archives are held as private collections.
Some archives are dedicated to documenting and preserving specific community memories. Many such community archives embrace a participatory culture.
On a smaller scale, personal archiving projects often help preserve experiences and legacies at the individual and family level.
Archives can help when you need access to original records to better understand what happened in the past.
You may want to use archives if you want to: 1) do research that goes beyond published material on certain histories, or 2) verify published content through original sources.
For general reading or research based on published sources, books and articles may be a better first step. They are often easier to access and tend to provide more extensive context. Wikipedia is also largely built on these sources (WP:SECONDARY).
Since different archives collect material within different areas, you will first need to figure out what archives hold the information you need.
If you are looking for archives located in a specific place:
If you are looking for information on specific individuals, groups, or organisations:
Archives hold a lot of information, and not all of it will be relevant. Once you know broadly what you are looking for and where you are looking for it, you will need to figure out what material might be most useful.
To do this, you can refer to archival descriptions. Archives sort and describe their material so that they make sense within historical context. Archival descriptions are your guide to what is contained in the institution's holdings, how the contents are arranged, and in what ways they matter.
Since many archives now provide digital descriptions of their holdings, it is possible to do much of this research online. However, if an archive does not have a website, list collections, or host digital descriptions, you will need to contact the institution directly.
If you are contacting the institution directly—inform the archival staff of your research scope and objectives; ask them to clarify what materials are held by the institution (ask if a finding aid is available); and ask how materials can be accessed by researchers (see: Accessing archives).
In using archival descriptions, it helps to understand by what rules and labels archival material is organised. A collection will often—but not always—be described in the form of a finding aid.
Archives are organised with respect to two principles:
While archival standards vary by country (e.g. Rules for Archival Description), they follow a broad international consensus (ISAD-G). For example, archival descriptions will always proceed from the general to the specific. We see this reflected in the levels of description, which categorise archival material similarly to how taxonomic rank groups organisms from the general to the specific.
At the highest level of description, a group of records from the same source is called a fonds (/fõː/)—or in some cases, "record group" or "papers". For example, the archival collection of Roxana Ng's records is called "Roxana Ng fonds".
Going from the general to the specific, a fonds may be subdivided into series and subseries. Each series or subseries is broken down into files then into items. The item is the lowest level of description. Not all fonds have all subdivisions. A fonds may have more or fewer subdivisions depending on how varied its materials are.
These levels of description are abstract groupings based on functions or themes. For example, Roxana Ng fonds includes the following series, among others:
Items—grouped and listed under the corresponding series/subseries/file—are physically stored at the archival institution in boxes and folders (inside boxes). Items of the same grouping may be stored across a number of folders or boxes to support the quantity and size of material. For example, material on Roxana Ng's conference activities (Series 12) are stored in "B2014-0005/034(05) - /038(06)", or in boxes 034 (folder 05 and up) to 038 (up to folder 06).
A finding aid is a text document that comprehensively describes the contents of a collection, often alongside contextual, historical information. You can use a finding aid to understand a collection (fonds/record group/papers) in its entirety, to see the relationships between its component parts, and to figure out which portions of the collection will be most useful to you.
Note that while all archival holdings will be described in some way, and while the archival institution will try to provide a finding aid for most collections, not all collections will have finding aids. But where available, many finding aids are now directly available online. If a finding aid exists but cannot be found online, the archival institution may still provide digital copies upon request.
A finding aid contains some variation of the following:
A finding aid will list any restrictions on access or use, the language of materials, and copyright information, as corresponds to the level of description (fonds, series, etc.). It will also include instructions for citation.
A number of annotated finding aids are available for reference:
You can consult archival staff on what options are available for access. To do this, get in touch with the institution by email or phone. You can inform the archival staff of your research scope and objectives, and request advice on accessing the parts of collections that you are interested in.
Since archives hold original (and often irreplaceable) records, archival material is most reliably accessed at the institution that holds them, during in-person visits. Before visiting in person, it is strongly advised that you contact the archives to schedule a visit. This will allow archival staff to arrange for the material you need (sometimes stored off-site) to be available for viewing. You should also review the institution's guidelines on using materials at the archives, as well as use and reproduction policies.
In some cases, the institution may also help you remotely access material upon request—through a cross-institution lending service, by mail, or digitally. Some collections in high demand may also have been digitised for broader access.
Archival material are generally primary sources. Individual items in an archive should not be directly cited on Wikipedia if they require contextual interpretation (WP:PRIMARY).
As an exception, one may cite the section of a finding aid that lists or describes an item that is self-evident of some fact. For example, a 1923 Nobel Prize medal inscribed to Frederick Banting makes self-evident the fact that the Nobel Prize was awarded to him in 1923. If a secondary source is available to support the same fact, cite alongside the secondary source.
Finding aids commonly contain narrative portions that give context to the archival material in question. These are compiled by topic specialists based on historical research, and may cover some variation or combination of a biographical/organisational sketch (of the subject of the fonds) and a historical note (on the process of archival creation itself).
These narrative portions are secondary sources that aid the user of the fonds. Therefore, they can be normally cited on Wikipedia (WP:SECONDARY).
See also: Wikipedia:Citing sources
When citing, specify the cited section of the finding aid. Where possible, point the URL to a stable link (permalink) that presents the finding aid in a standardised, digital format (example). Uploaded scans or PDFs (example) often change over time, leading to broken links.