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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

Useful Terms

Finding aid: Finding aids describe archival materials in order to store and retrieve them. They often include a biographical sketch or administrative history of the material's creator, the scope and content of the collection, and list the arrangement of items in the collection. 

Reference interview: A reference interview is an interview between an archives staff member and a patron regarding the information the patron is looking for. This may take the form of an informal conversation to help the patron find sources relevant to their research, or a more detailed discussion.  The interview helps to define the parameters of the search (time period of interest, provenance of potentially responsive collections, contents of specific collections, etc.)

Reading room: A reading room is the secure space where patrons can work with archival materials. In order to minimize risk to the materials, reading room policies often dictate that researchers use pencils (instead of pens) to take notes, and keep their personal belongings separate from the records.

Provenance: Provenance refers to the origin or source of the records; this could be a person, an administrative body, or a family. The principle of provenance (or respect des fonds) dictates that records should be organized by creator and kept in their original order. 

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