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Guide to Archival & Primary Source Instruction

A guide for teaching faculty and staff to learn about archival and primary source instruction at the University of Regina

Learning about Archives and Primary Source Materials

This section defines key terminology associated with archival research. As an introduction to general terms and ideas, this page is a useful resource for getting students thinking about archives, what they mean, and how they can be a valuable resource for researchers. 

Introduction to Archives & Archival Materials

The term "archives" has multiple meanings; it can refer to the archival records themselves, or it can refer to the institution or physical space that functions as the custodian of archival records. In the latter case, archives are repositories that house materials of continuing value, meaning they collect, preserve, and make accessible records that have been determined to contain useful information that justifies their ongoing preservation. 

Archival records come in many forms.  These include textual, audio, visual, and photographic records (all of which can exist in analog or digital format).  Some examples include: 

  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Photographs
  • Scrapbooks
  • Recordings of oral histories
  • Minutes from business meetings
  • Financial records (ledgers, inventories, etc.)
  • Press releases
  • Newspaper articles
  • Legal documents (wills, deeds, birth certificates, etc.)

....and much, much more 

Types of Sources

Primary Sources: Archival materials are typically considered to be primary sources. According to the Guideline for Primary Source Literacy, primary sources are materials that "serve as original evidence documenting a time period, an event, a work, people, or ideas." Generally speaking, they are sources that were created at the same time as the event that they describe took place. In the case of oral histories, they may be created after the event has taken place, but are accounts from someone who experienced the event firsthand. 

Secondary sources: Secondary sources are works that analyze, interpret, and contextualize primary sources (and sometimes other secondary sources) to construct an argument. Examples of secondary sources include reviews, essays, or commentaries. 

Tertiary sources: Tertiary sources are works that compile and summarize primary and secondary sources without additional interpretation. Examples include encyclopedias and dictionaries. 

Further Reading