21 Archives

Caitlin Donnelly Klepper

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Define archives, and distinguish them from libraries.
  • Identify a variety of categories of archives.
  • Integrate archival research into journalism and strategic communication projects.
  • Plan and navigate archival research.
  • Evaluate the credibility of archival sources.

Archives of Our Lives

“In an informal and possibly unselfconscious way, we maintain a personal archive, a treasure chest of cherished artifacts and the memories they hold for us,” David M. Levy, an information expert at the University of Washington, observed.

Think about the contents of your bedroom at home, or your apartment or dorm room on campus, or all the different files stored on your laptop. What kinds of records do you have? What kinds of records do you generate on a daily basis? Think, too, about the kinds of records you’ve had but thrown away or deleted. Why do you save some things but not others? They can be physical (paper) or electronic materials. They can be from the distant past (e.g. your childhood), the more recent past (e.g. last year), or the present.

Do you have any of the following?

  • Correspondence: letters, cards, postcards, emails, and text messages.
  • Diaries or journals: physical volumes or blogs.
  • School records: course notes, exams, papers, projects, report cards/transcripts, and copies of readings.
  • Financial records: bank and credit card statements; receipts; and documentation pertaining to taxes, scholarships, tuition, and loans.
  • Vital records: Social Security card, birth certificate, marriage license, passport, driver’s license, and car title and registration.
  • Published materials: yearbooks, magazines, clippings, and articles.
  • Ephemera (i.e. materials created for a specific, limited purpose and generally designed to be discarded after use): concert programs, tickets, posters, bumper stickers, and buttons.
  • Audiovisual materials: photographs and video.
  • Social media posts.
  • Historical records: family documents, photographs, and videos.

Just as you maintain a personal archive, so too have people in the distant and recent past kept written documentation of their lives as individuals and as members of networks of relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and associates. Like your personal archive, these collections capture a range of people’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and activities, from the mundane and everyday to the extraordinary, from the joyful to the heartbreaking, and from the commendable to the questionable.

What Are Archives?

You probably have encountered the word “archives” in conversation or writing. It’s commonly used to refer to any collection of data, information stored long term, or old documents. However, among information professionals, the term “archives” has more specific definitions. Let’s examine and unpack two of these definitions.

Definition 1: Archives are records and collections

Archives are collections of noncurrent records created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of their enduring value.

Collections are groups of related documents. Each individual document derives some of its significance and meaning from its relationships to other items in the archives. According to archivist Peter Hirtle, “A true archives is a contextually based organic body of evidence, not a collection of miscellaneous information.”

Noncurrent materials are no longer used in the day-to-day activity of a person or organization. Clearly, this applies to historical materials like letters written in the 1800s. What may be surprising is that materials created much more recently can also be considered noncurrent. This includes materials such as receipts for groceries you bought yesterday, a text message conversation you had with a friend last week, an airline’s record of a flight you took last month, and notes and readings from classes you took and completed last semester. In short, noncurrent doesn’t necessarily mean old.

Records are documentary materials in any format. Records historically and generally refer to textual paper documents, items, or materials such as letters and diaries. Audiovisual materials like photographs, films, and videos are also considered records. Increasingly, archives are also collecting electronic, born-digital records like emails, spreadsheets, and websites.

Archives include records created or received by someone. Think back to your personal archives. It contains documents you have created, like journals. It also contains documents that your friends, relatives, professors, and others have sent you, for example letters, postcards, and cards.

Archives contain the records of people, families, or organizations, public or private. The records of a person or family are sometimes referred to as personal papers. It’s important to remember that, while archives document the lives of famous individuals and leaders in various fields, they also preserve information about the experiences of ordinary people. Organizations can be businesses and corporations; churches; community organizations; schools, colleges, and universities; and local, state, and national governments.

Individuals and organizations create archival records in the conduct of their affairs. They are a byproduct of the normal course of daily, planning, decision-making activities, and they are generally not purposely created for long-term posterity or with other users (like future scholars) in mind. For example, when you email a professor or text a friend, are you thinking about creating a record, or are you creating a record as a tool to communicate and conduct your daily business?

Archival records are preserved because of their enduring value. In other words, they are kept and saved after they have served their original purpose because they are judged to have value to others who were not the original users. Keep in mind that not all records can and need to be saved permanently. This is especially true of the archives of organizations, as information professionals have a systematic process for determining what is saved, what is destroyed, and when.

For example, the National Archives and Records Administration — an independent agency of the U.S. government and the keeper of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights — keeps only about 2 to 5 percent of the federal records generated in any given year. You, perhaps unknowingly, do the same thing with your personal archives. You probably don’t save every piece of paper, every email, and every photograph you’ve ever created or received. You have various reasons for keeping some documents and throwing away or deleting others after varying periods of time.

Definition 2: Archives are institutions and places

Archives are organizations that collect, preserve, store, and provide access to the records of individuals, families, or other organizations. The term “archives” also refers to the building (or portion thereof) housing the organization.

Think again about your personal archive. You may have materials stored in a variety of places, such as your laptop and desk drawers in your dorm room or apartment on campus. Additional parts of your personal archive might be in your room, or in your parents’ attic, basement, or garage. In this condition, your personal archives are potentially disorganized and at risk from theft, fire, water, mold, bugs, and rodents. They also cannot be accessed by other people like, for example, scholars researching the experiences of 21st-century Kansans or college students. For this reason, you might consider eventually giving your personal archives to a professional archival organization like Kenneth Spencer Research Library.

Records make their way to archival institutions in three primary ways. First, materials can be donated or gifted. This is often how the personal papers of individual and families make their way to archives. Second, materials can be purchased. This is often how archives acquire the papers of prominent individuals and leaders. For example, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin purchased Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate Papers in 2003 for $5 million. Third, archival materials can be transferred. Generally, the records of a parent organization are systematically transferred to its archival repository. For example, records generated by departments within the University of Kansas are transferred on a regular basis to the KU University Archives.

Archives Versus Libraries

Broadly speaking, archives are different from libraries.

Library collections contain published items like books, scholarly journals, newspapers, and maps. Archive collections contain unpublished materials like letters and diaries.

Materials in library collections usually are available in other libraries. Some materials in archival collections are unique, that is, there is only one copy in existence.

Library materials are organized individually by a predetermined subject classification system that enables users to browse by subject in open stacks. Archival materials are organized by provenance: records of different origins –- the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection –- are kept separate from other collections in order to preserve their context.

Items in libraries are independently significant: items in archives derive significance from relationships to other records in the collection.

These differences are not always so cut and dry in practice. Archives frequently exist within a library and contain books, maps, and other published materials in addition to unpublished collections of records. For example, KU’s University Archives are housed at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, which is also home to collections from across Kansas and around the world. Within KU’s University Archives, researchers can access university publications like Jayhawker yearbooks, annual catalogs, alumni publications, and the University Daily Kansan, in addition to records, photographs, and audiovisual materials.

Archive Categories

As shown in the list below, there are many different types of archival repositories. They range widely in size, funding, and audience. Although we’re focusing on U.S. archives in this chapter, archival institutions exist around the world. For more information about each type of repository listed below, see the “Types of Archives” section of Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research by the Society of American Archivists.

College and university archives

Corporate archives

Government archives

Historical societies


Religious archives

Special collections

Community archives

Additionally, an organization, business, or church may maintain their own historical records — perhaps without formally designating them as archives — instead of donating or transferring them to archives.

What Are Digitized Archival Collections?

Archivists seek to promote and provide the widest possible accessibility of materials. They have long used technology to provide access to users who may not be able to physically visit an archives. In the past, this included efforts to compile collections of documents and publish them as a book that could be purchased by libraries around the country. For example, the papers and correspondence of a Founding Father, which might be scattered across multiple institutions, would end up in book form to allow individuals unable to visit the archives in person access to the materials.

Today, archival institutions are working to make substantial amounts of their physical holdings available online. Institutions accomplish this through the process of digitization, which is the conversion of analog text, pictures, or sound into a digital form that can be processed by a computer. Archives continue to maintain collections of physical records that have been digitized.

As a result of these efforts, you can discover and access a tremendous wealth of archival materials online, along with digitized copies of rare print sources like books and maps. Moreover, once archival materials have been digitized, they are no longer organized simply by provenance, which we defined above. Researchers can search digitized materials in a variety of ways, including browsing by subject and conducting keyword searches of the text. This means that a user can quickly find all letters about a specific person, place, or thing without reading an entire collection.

Countless digital collections are available freely on the open web. See KU Libraries’ guide to primary sources for U.S. history for a list of some examples.

Additional digital collections are available by a paid institutional subscription. See KU Libraries’ guide to primary sources for U.S. history (and click on the time period you’re studying) to see digital collections that are licensed to KU students, faculty, and staff.


The genealogy website Ancestry.com is an important for-profit digital collection of public domain archival records (i.e. not protected by copyright) from institutions across the country and world. Included are several billion historical records like federal and state censuses; birth, marriage, and death records; immigration records; and military records. Ancestry is an important resource for piecing together the details about the life of a person who lived in the past, especially when paired with other sources like articles found in Newspapers.com or physical records by, to, or about the individual.

Ancestry is available to paying subscribers. However, due to the popularity of genealogy, many public libraries, including Lawrence Public Library, provide free on-site access. Additionally, Kansas residents with a valid driver’s license or state identification can access digitized state records from the Kansas State Archives on Ancestry for free.

Despite the wealth of archival materials available online, remember that they represent only a small fraction of the physical, analog archival collections that are held at physical repositories. This is true even of impressive digital collections, like Ancestry.com. Digitization is a time-consuming and expensive process that involves retrieving documents, assessing the physical conservation needs of the materials, and making any necessary repairs; scanning or photographing materials; creating and updating accurate and complete metadata; and continuing to make the digital materials available as technologies change over time. As a result, the vast majority of archival materials have not been digitized.

For example, KU’s University Archives holds over 1 million photographic items that document the development of the campus and its buildings, student life, faculty, commencement, and athletic events. Almost 35,000 of those images have been digitized and made available online. That is a substantial number, but it’s only 3.5 percent of the entire collection.

Why Use Archives?

Archival records are a rich and important source of information for journalists.

First, they provide powerful connections with people who lived in the past. Archives capture and preserve the humanity of people who may no longer be with us. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a letter written by Lawrence resident Elisabeth Crittenden, a survivor of Quantrill’s Raid, to her mother a month after the 1863 attack.

Dear Mother I am alive, but have had my nerves so unstrung by the late Massacre of our citizens that I have not written to let you know that I had escaped, unhurt, you have heard all about Quantrill’s coming into Lawrence before this, but Mother, you cannot imagine the distress and suffering of our women and children by the sudden death of their Husbands and Fathers. 100 and 180 widows and over 200 orphans were made in one day, and in two hours time . . .

By putting individuals’ stories together, archives strengthen collective memory and preserve the histories of families, communities, states, regions, and nations. As we’ll see later, however, this has not and is not always equally true for all groups and individuals.

Archives, particularly government archives, also protect and preserve evidence of citizens’ rights, property, and identity, and they make transparent government possible. “The Importance of State Archives,” created by the Council of State Archivists, provides some examples. In documenting how individuals working in governments, companies, and organizations conduct their affairs on a daily basis, archives provide a paper trail that helps journalists and others reveal to the public when these activities are questionable, misleading, or illegal.

Additionally, unpublished documents in archives capture individuals’ private, unguarded, and unfiltered thoughts, feelings, and words, which were recorded for themselves and perhaps a small number of other readers. What someone says privately may differ from what that person says in public, published accounts. This discrepancy can be fertile ground for journalists to investigate, especially when the individuals in question work in government, business, or an organization.

For example, reporting on the Democratic National Committee’s leaked emails during the 2016 election, Aaron Blake of The Washington Post wrote that “many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Basically all of these examples came late in the primary — after Hillary Clinton was clearly headed for victory — but they belie the national party committee’s stated neutrality in the race even at that late stage.”

Moreover, archival records can be useful or significant for reasons other than that for which they were originally created. This can be particularly true when records are analyzed in new contexts and in conjunction with other sources. For example, in their October 2017 article “How We Found Tom Price’s Private Jets,” Politico journalists Dan Diamond and Rachana Pradhan described the role of non-current, unpublished records in their investigation into the use of private jets for routine travel by Tom Price, then Health and Human Services secretary. For example, Diamond and Pradhan wrote:

As we looked at our growing database [of information about Price’s travel], we noticed some peculiarities about his trips. For instance, there was a Friday afternoon charter flight that took him to an island off the Georgia coast, even though he didn’t have any formal events scheduled for nearly two days. We checked property records, HHS financial disclosures and fundraising records from Price’s political career and realized the former Georgia congressman had long-standing ties to St. Simons Island: He and his wife regularly visited during the summers, both for fundraisers and to participate in the local medical association, and they owned undeveloped land worth more than $1 million there.

Note that property records are created and maintained to document who owns what land. But, in this case, they are also evidence of wrongdoing.

Journalists, strategic communications professionals, and others use archival materials in myriad ways.

  • A news story or press release might highlight the activities at an archives, such as the acquisition of new collections, new or expanded services, discoveries made within the collections, or projects like exhibits and digitization.
  • Archival records, especially photographs and other visual materials, can influence and provide inspiration for new products, advertising campaigns, and brand development.
  • Archival records can be used to highlight, explore, and share the history and stories of the parent organization, for example institutional anniversaries, milestones, accomplishments, significant events, important people, and painful aspects of the organization’s past.
  • Historical photographs from archives can be featured as part of social media efforts like Throwback Thursday, Flashback Friday, etc.
  • Archival records can be used to explore local and institutional connections to national or international events and anniversaries.
  • Archival records can provide historical background or context.
  • Archival records can be used for fact checking, corroboration, and written proof of claims made in interviews.

One powerful example of the use of archival materials by a journalist is David Grann’s work “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” Grann spoke about the role of archives in his research process in a 2017 article in The Village Voice:

It took David Grann nearly five years to write his latest bestselling nonfiction book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” because of how much time he spent in archives. The book is about the Osage, a Native American tribe whose Oklahoma land, in the early 1900s, was discovered to be sitting on an oil reserve. The tribe members became per capita the wealthiest people in the world. Then they started getting murdered.

Grann had known about the killings, but not their extent, until he came across a fabric-covered logbook in the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a simple document. It was a list of the names of Osage “guardians” — the white people assigned, on a deeply racist premise, to manage the Osage fortunes — and next to them, the name of the Osage they were the guardian for. The only other thing written in the book was, underneath the names of certain of the Osage, the word dead. One guardian was assigned to five Osages, and all five of their names were followed by that word. “That defies any natural death rate,” Grann said. “I thought that was strange, and I began to look at other individuals. Sometimes there would be a guardian who had a dozen Osage whose wealth they had been in charge of, they’d been guardians of, and there might have been 50 percent of them who had the word ‘dead’ next to them. And on and on it went.”

“That document,” he said, “which really just looked like a bureaucratic ledger — it was very forensic, had no kind of emotion to it — really contained the hints of a systematic murder campaign.” He said that that was the nature of archival work: a document that looked like nothing could turn out to be telling a powerful story — but only if you had a sense of what you were looking at. “I was not looking for that book, I just came across it. And unless you were versed in what was going on, it might’ve just seemed innocuous. And yet this very innocuous document really showed the banality of evil.”

In the process of writing the book, Grann said, through all the archival work, there’s “a kind of relationship with these documents that you begin to develop as you become more familiar with them, and as you hold them, and as you look at them.” He likened it to the relationship you develop as you speak to someone, face to face, in an interview; it’s more than you could ever get over email. “I thought the handwriting in that ledger was revealing,” he said. “It was just a simple word. And I just kept thinking, ‘Who was that bureaucrat who kept writing this word dead?’ And I just would look at the handwriting, and that’s all they wrote, and in that word it contained volumes of hidden history, suffering, death, poisonings — souls.”

Keep in mind that, while archival records are used in many news stories, they may not be identified as such. Other words like “records,” “documents,” and “sources” may be used instead. Or, numbers may be provided that were compiled or calculated using unpublished, noncurrent written sources. As you encounter news stories, watch and listen for these and other words that hint at archival records being used.

Finding Archival Collections

Conventional search strategies

You can start your search for archival collections by checking books and articles, including those on Wikipedia, that have already been written about your topic. Pay particular attention to the reference lists or bibliographies of these books or articles. As you search and read, ask yourself: What archival sources did the authors use, and where are they located?

You can continue your research with a Google search, using the same search strategies covered in the Search and Re-Search and Search More Effectively chapters.

When searching online for archival materials about a topic, pair the name of the person, organization, or event you’re researching with words like “archives,” “collections,” “records,” “letters,” or “photographs.” Including those additional words helps you find archival collections about your topic, not biographies, articles, or news stories.

This search may turn up digitized archival sources about your topic. However, you may not find much or any digitized content. Remember that the overwhelming percent of archival materials have not been digitized. Additionally, as you will recall from our earlier chapter on Google, the search engines cannot index or make discoverable much of what is on the web. In particular, Google will generally not index primary sources housed behind the firewalls of library archival databases. For this reason, we recommend you visit the library’s list of databases and follow the below steps.

Your online search may turn up links to online descriptions of archival collections called finding aids. Finding aids are sometimes called indexes, guides, or inventories. One of the key pieces of information in a finding aid is the location of the collection being described. A video at the end of this chapter discusses finding aids in more depth.

Searching for repositories

If your Google searches reveal neither digitized collections nor finding aids, you’ll need other strategies for locating archival materials, likely physical records housed at a repository. There are several ways of going about this.

First, see if you can easily guess where records you need are located. For example, if you do strategic communications for a unit within a college or university, information about the history of that unit –- in the form of records, photographs, and published materials –- will be found in the school’s archives, even if you couldn’t find a reference to these materials through a Google search. Likewise, a business, organization, or church may maintain its own historical records, possibly, but not necessarily, as an officially designated archives program. Geography can also guide you to relevant records. For example, if you’re researching a local event, person, or topic, archives with records documenting local history might be a good place to start.

Second, approach your topic differently by identifying other potential search terms and thinking more broadly. Conduct preliminary research about your topic using sources like Wikipedia or books or articles written about it. For example, say you’re researching an individual person. Make a list of (1) the important people who were in this person’s network, (2) the organizations with which this person was affiliated, (3) where the person went to school, (4) where the person worked, (5) where the person volunteered or worked with nonprofits or community groups. The names on this list become your new search terms, and again pair them with words like “archives,” “collections,” “records,” “letters,” or “photographs.” Doing this may not reveal specific archival records about the individual you’re researching, but it may direct you to collections of records by, to, or about related individuals or organizations, which in turn may contain information about the person you’re researching.

Third, you can reuse your original and expanded list of search terms to search tools like ArchiveGrid (free online) and Archive Finder (licensed by KU Libraries). These tools search descriptions of archival records held by libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions across the United States and beyond.

Finally, think about the records themselves and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What types of sources would I ideally like to find?
  • What types of materials were –- or might have been –- created during the time period I’m studying?
  • Where would those documents have been housed at the time they were created?
  • Can I extrapolate from the above answer to determine where the documents are located now?

After all of this searching, you may still find yourself at a dead end. Perhaps the records you would like to find were never created, or they were created but haven’t survived to the present day. Perhaps the records are still in someone’s personal custody, meaning they have not been donated to a publicly accessible archives. Or, perhaps an archives has the records, but they are inaccessible because they’re restricted or have never been processed, or made ready for researchers. Or, an archives has the records and they’re available for use, but the finding aid exists only as a paper document.

If you hit a dead end, make an educated guess as to where the relevant records might be — likely based at least partially on geographic proximity to the topic you’re researching – and contact an archivist at that institution for guidance. For example, in honor of the centennial of World War I, Spencer Research Library used its blog to follow the experiences of one American soldier –- 19 year-old Forrest W. Bassett – at Fort Leavenworth. Forrest’s letters are held in Spencer’s Kansas Collection. The final entry of the series revealed what happened to Forrest after World War I. Google searches did not turn up any photographs of him, but keeping in mind that he lived his entire life in Beloit, Wisconsin, I reached out to the Beloit Historical Society. The staff there was able to find four photographs of Forrest and his wife and children.

Using Archives

Despite the wealth of digitized archival materials available online, always remember that they represent only a small fraction of the physical archival collections that are held at brick-and-mortar archival repositories. Thus, even if you have been able to access records that are relevant to your project online, you may also need to visit an archival institution and use physical collections. Here are some things to keep in mind as you do this.

Archives are meant to be used by researchers

Archives are not warehouses for records, and they’re more than places to simply store materials. Access and use are among the core values of the archival profession.

Archivists can be as invaluable to you as the sources

You can email, call, or talk to an archivist at any stage of your research. Don’t think you’re bothering the archivist. Remember, part of an archivist’s job is to help researchers access and use collections. It’s also something that archivists enjoy. Don’t hesitate to ask for help!

You may feel intimidated when working with archives, but archivists understand that working with collections can be challenging, and they can help you navigate the process. Archivists may also know additional information about collections, beyond what is available in finding aids and other tools. That means archivists may be able to direct you to relevant collections that you hadn’t or wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Research frequently requires the use of collections at multiple repositories

Think again about your personal archive. If you sent a postcard to your friend while on vacation, that postcard would be in your friend’s personal archives, not yours. As a result, a future scholar researching your life would need to consult your personal archives, plus the personal archives of your friends, your relatives, and other people in your network. Electronic documents muddle these distinctions somewhat. While you likely don’t have a copy of a paper letter you wrote and sent, you probably do have copies of emails you’ve sent.

Archives operate differently than libraries, and each archive is unique

Earlier in this chapter we considered ways in which archives and libraries are different. These differences mean that archives operate differently than the public and university libraries to which you may be accustomed.

Unlike public and academic libraries, collections at archival institutions are stored in closed book stacks, which are employee-only areas inaccessible to researchers. Closed book stacks are secure spaces that protect materials from theft, damage, and disorganization. Archival materials also don’t circulate, meaning they cannot be checked out and taken home. Researchers must work in dedicated spaces at the archives, generally called a Reading Room. Reading Rooms are supervised by staff, who guard against theft and make sure materials are handled properly.

Additionally, archives generally have more rules and procedures than public and academic libraries. These guidelines may be surprising and unfamiliar to you at first. However, they are in place because most archival materials are unique and irreplaceable, so they need to be handled with extra care. When you use archival materials, you are helping to make sure those items stay safe and in good condition for future researchers. An archives’ rules will help you do that. Consult Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research by the Society of American Archivists to read about some typical usage guidelines found at archives and the reasons behind them.

Archives may implement the above general guidelines in different ways, so specific rules across institutions can vary. Be sure to familiarize yourself with an archives’ rules before you visit. Check the repository’s website for information and contact the archivist for more details if necessary.

Working in archives is not a fast process, so allow enough time

It’s difficult to conduct archival research at the last minute, with a deadline looming. Using archives is kind of like being a detective: you’re following clues and piecing them together in order to answer a question. You might make unexpected discoveries, and frequently new information leads to new questions. You might need to conduct additional research on a name, organization, place, or event referenced in a record. While archivists and discovery tools like finding aids are invaluable resources, you may still have to do quite a bit of digging in boxes, folders, and records.

Remember, too, that many records from the past are handwritten in cursive. It can take time to make sense of an individual’s handwriting, especially if it’s quirky and contains unfamiliar abbreviations and inconsistent spelling. Sometimes it helps to transcribe (i.e. make a typed copy of) a document.

It’s also important to record thorough citation information about the materials as you work. You may later need to go back and refer to those materials again, or another researcher may later need or want to track your sources.

Keep in mind, too, that many archives have more limited hours than public and academic libraries. They may be closed on certain days (e.g. weekends), may not be open in the evenings, and may be closed around lunchtime. Additionally, some archives require researchers to make appointments.

Archivists are happy to assist researchers with their work. However, archives generally don’t have enough manpower for archivists to conduct extensive research for users. If you have a simple, focused question that can be answered in a short amount of time, an archivist may be able to review materials on your behalf and relay the information to you. If you have a broad research question that requires examining, reading, and interpreting a sizeable quantity of documents, you should expect to visit the archives and conduct that research yourself. If a visit to an archives facility is not possible, an archivist will still try to assist you. For example, an archives may direct you to a list of proxy researchers, who are local researchers whom you can hire to conduct research on your behalf.

Archives generally offer services for obtaining copies or scans of items

Regulations vary across archives, but most have some kind of process for providing researchers with copies, scans, or reproductions. Sometimes researchers are allowed to make their own copies, and more frequently archives staff provide them. You may need to complete and submit paperwork to request copies, and you may have to pay a fee. Archives likely also have a process for researchers who would like to request permission to publish or display an item from the archives. This would apply, for example, if you want to include a photograph from an archives to accompany a piece you’re writing. Again, you may need to complete and submit paperwork and pay a fee. These processes generally take a bit of time; anticipate that they cannot be done quickly.

Evaluating Archival Sources

In general, you can think about archival materials as primary sources, whether they’re paper documents, electronic records, or digitized surrogates. A primary source is a document that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness. Primary sources are characterized by “a lack of intermediaries between the thing or events being studied and reports of those things or events,” according to a definition from the Society of American Archivists.

Importantly, this definition continues to say that, “newspaper articles contemporaneous with the events described are traditionally considered primary sources, although the reporter may have compiled the story from witnesses, rather than being an eyewitness.”

For this reason, primary sources may be more reliable and accurate than secondary and tertiary sources written later. Think about playing a game of telephone: the original information becomes increasingly distorted each time it’s repeated. Likewise, as archival records get quoted, paraphrased, and summarized by multiple authors in various texts over time, the original account or story can become twisted. Even basic facts can become untrue over time. Once an erroneous piece of information enters the literature, it frequently gets repeated in subsequent works.

This problem is compounded when claims about the past are invoked to make arguments about the present, when present-day attitudes and events influence our view and interpretation of the past, when scholars reassess known information in new ways, when problematic ideas about the past enter and persist in popular culture and collective consciousness, and when communities of all sizes seek to ignore painful aspects of their history. The antidote to this complexity? Go back to the original primary sources and the archival record.

Archival credibility cues

Despite their research value, archival materials must be read with skepticism. Take into account the same considerations with which you would analyze any other source of information or news, such as credibility assessments discussed in earlier chapters. When working with archival records, though, there are layers of additional challenges.

First, just because an archival record was written at the time of an historical event doesn’t automatically mean that it is completely accurate. Records contain errors and are not always straightforward, with their precise meaning sometimes unclear. For example, the federal population census has been conducted every ten years since 1790. If you trace a person’s life using the census, you’ll notice that the information doesn’t always match up. Most commonly, people don’t always age ten years within the ten years between censuses. This is true even though census information was self-reported or provided by someone close to the individual.

When examining an archival record, it’s important to assess the perspective and bias of the author and think about the author’s original audience. Keep in mind that, in important ways, people in the past lived in a world that was radically different than what we know today. As L.P. Hartley wrote in his novel “The Go-Between” (1953), “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” As a result, people who lived in the past possessed different worldviews and assumptions. And, just like today, not everyone who lived in the past shared the exact same perspectives and beliefs. This is perhaps obvious when considering archival records written in the distant past, but it’s true of the more recent past, too.

For example, consider an opinion piece in Forbes in 2016. The article examined the formative experiences of 70-year-old white men, who were born in 1946 and became adults in 1964. Their interactions with women and people of color were influenced by the societal context in which they lived. For example, “across roughly half of America, voters born in 1946 would have been adults before they ever saw a black person eat in a restaurant dining room, stay in their hotel, or enter a restroom with them. In the South, these voters spent all of their formative years drinking from the whites’ only fountain.” It can be easy to forget that the world was significantly different even just a few decades ago, and to forget that broad, abstract historical contexts had real implications for the individuals who experienced them.

While interpreting an individual archival document can be challenging, considering that document within a larger collection of records can raise additional uncertainties. Biases exist across collections, not just in individual documents.

One document from the archives generally doesn’t tell an entire story. Most documents are incomplete by themselves but are invaluable pieces of a larger puzzle. These pieces rarely fit together neatly or easily. This can be true even when the historical record seems relatively complete. Consider the work of John Badger Bachelder, who sought to write a definitive history of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Despite his efforts — which began within months after the July 1863 battle — Bachelder was ultimately unable to complete his project. Historian Thomas Desjardin described Bachelder’s struggle in his book, “These Honored Dead:”

Few, if any, historians ever had more information, support, and funding for their work than Bachelder did in writing a history of the Battle of Gettysburg…Despite years of written and oral conversations with hundreds, if not thousands, of eyewitnesses, the final product of his endeavor was an eight-volume, 2,000 page summary of the battle taken largely from the already published official reports of the battle…When it came time to put pen to paper and commit to one version of the truth over another, Bachelder came to the realization that…there is no “what really happened” at Gettysburg; only a mountain of varying, often contradictory accounts that are seldom in accord, all tainted in some way or other by memory, bias, politics, ego, or a host of other factors.

Moreover, the historical record is full of holes, gaps, and silences that are not accidental.

Some records that modern researchers would love to use were never created. For example, your personal archive does not contain any evidence of verbal conversations you’ve had on the phone or in person, unless you have recorded conversations using WhatsApp or Snapchat. Individuals’ decisions to write down information frequently has been a result of historical context as much, if more so, than about personal decision.

Think, for example, about enslaved African Americans. They were prohibited from learning to read and write, meaning that there are very few first-person accounts written by the enslaved documenting their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. The enslaved were also considered property, an idea that is reflected in documents from the time. The 1860 population census of “free inhabitants” records each person’s name, age, gender, occupation, and birthplace. In contrast, the 1860 “slave schedule” records only the age, gender, and color (black or mixed-race) of each enslaved person. The effects of the institution of slavery were reflected and preserved in the historical record, and those effects will permanently influence research conducted by their descendants and scholars.

Some records that archivists would assess as having enduring value have not survived to the present day. The earliest records of Lawrence, Kansas, for example, were destroyed in Quantrill’s Raid in 1863. Collections of personal wartime letters frequently have only the letters written by soldiers to their families. Many letters from families to soldiers no longer exist, because soldiers probably were unable to carry and keep those documents on the front. Additionally, the personal writings of some prominent individuals have been intentionally destroyed in anticipation of others’ interest in the documents. For example, poet Emily Dickinson asked her sister Lavinia to destroy her papers after her death; it was a promise Lavinia kept.

Finally, documents are preserved in archives as a result of the actions of past and current generations of scholars and archivists. The historical record therefore reflects what documents –- and what stories –- they have considered and do consider to be important and worth collecting and saving. These decisions have reflected the values and power structures of the broader society in which scholars and archivists have operated. Thus, the voices of individuals and organizations in historically marginalized communities –- those, for example, of women, LGBT individuals, indigenous peoples, working class and poor people, and African Americans –- have also been largely excluded from the historical record.


Working with archives can be challenging for a variety of reasons. But, working with these materials — handling original documents, uncovering stories of people who lived in the past, making discoveries, and piecing together stories — can also be very exciting. In conducting archival research, remember that a wealth of digitized materials is available online and that a tremendous of amount of additional physical collections are available at brick-and-mortar repositories. Finally, remember that archivists are available and excited to help you with various aspects of your research.

Activity 1: Kick starting archival research

Search for a historical topic using Wikipedia. Using your researching skills gained in earlier chapters, use the Wikipedia citations to locate an archive used to write the article. Go to the website for the archive. Is the material digitized and online or must a researcher visit the archive to access the material? Why do you think the material is or is not digitized?

Hint: Try to select a topic prior to 1990 to ensure there is historical data collected in an archive.

Activity 2:

Visit the National Archive’s African American Records: Freedman’s Bureau. Read about the collection on the collection’s homepage and then search or browse through the collection. Locate one item and read it. Who wrote the information? What does it tell you about this particular time in history and the people who lived through it? Can you detect in sort of bias in the material? Does anything surprise you? How would you determine the credibility of this source?


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Be Credible Copyright © 2018 by Caitlin Donnelly Klepper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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