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POL 250: Working with Primary Sources & Archives

This guide was made for POL 250 to help students get started on their primary and archival research. Use this guide to explore resources available through Pace and beyond, as well as learn more about how to do archival research.


What are Archives?

"The word archives can be used in three different ways:

  • The word archives (usually written with a lower case a and sometimes referred to in the singular, as archive) refers to the permanently valuable records—such as letters, reports, accounts, minute books, draft and final manuscripts, and photographs—of people, businesses, and government. These records are kept because they have continuing value to the creating agency and to other potential users. They are the documentary evidence of past events. They are the facts we use to interpret and understand history.
  • An Archives (often written with a capital A and usually, but not always, in the plural) is an organization dedicated to preserving the documentary heritage of a particular group: a city, a province or state, a business, a university, or a community. For example, the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States, Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, The Coca-Cola Company Archives, and The Archives of the Episcopal Church are all responsible for the preservation and management of archives.
  • The word archives is also used to refer to the building or part of a building in which archival materials are kept, i.e., the archival repository itself."

Excerpted from The Story Behind the Book: Preserving Authors’ and Publishers’ Archives by Laura Millar, and retrieved from on 1/27/2020

What can I do in a library that I can't do in an archive?

Archives are typically home to unpublished materials like memos, diaries, letters, working papers, sometimes photographs or other Ephemera.  An archive is not  "browse-able"  in the same way a library is. Researchers will use a Finding Aid to get a sense of what might be in an archival collection, rather than search by keyword in a catalog to find books, articles or other materials like you would in a library.  Access also looks very different in a library than it does in an archive. While both are designed to help connect people to ideas, an archive is typically more focused on the preservation of material, whereas a library's primary mission is less about preservation and more about gaining access to knowledge and information.

To learn more about the differences between libraries and archives, take a look at a few resources listed here:


How do I start my research?

You can start you research in a lot of different ways - from finding secondary source materials like books, articles, or newspapers that might help frame your research you can find the specific people, places, and things that can be found in an archival collection.

Some archival collections are highlighted in the tab above and are a great place to start if you have a specific person or movement in mind.

To find a collection, you can search in Archives Grid, which searches across nearly 5 million records describing archival materials and archival institutions.

Archives and libraries are different in a few different ways, but the biggest is when you visit an archive it's always better to plan ahead. Here are some key points for what you need to know before you go for your research visit.

Check hours and access:

  • When is the archive open?
  • Do the hours work with your schedule?
  • Check their website to see if  you have to register to access materials or if there are any requirements (no bags, no pens, no cameras etc)
  • This information is most likely available on the website for the archive or special collection you would like to visit. If you're not sure you can always call ahead and ask.

Do you research before you go:

  • What collections do you want to view? Check finding aids and the catalog before your visit so you know what to request. You can't browse in an archive like you can in a library.
  • If you have a collection in mind, are there any restrictions on use and access? If you're not sure, you can always ask the archivist.


Archives in New York City:

Online Collections:

Selected Archival Collections:


"An individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control to protect the materials' authenticity and context."

Finding Aid

"A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials."

"Finding aid includes a wide range of formats, including card indexes, calendars, guides, inventories, shelf and container lists, and registers... is a single document that places the materials in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as acquisition and processing; provenance, including administrative history or biographical note; scope of the collection, including size, subjects, media; organization and arrangement; and an inventory of the series and the folders."

If the materials in an archive are the treasure, think of the Finding Aid as the treasure map.

Scope and Content Note

"A narrative statement summarizing the characteristics of the described materials, the functions and activities that produced them, and the types of information contained therein."

Scope and content notes are part of finding aids and catalog records.


Definitions were retrieved from the Society of American Archivists' Glossary on 1/27/2020