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Archives & Digital Services: Archives FAQ


This page is intended to guide potential users through some of the basics of using archives in general, and using the SLU Archives in particular

The SLU Archives: What You'll Find

  • University Publications
    • Yearbooks
    • Handbooks
    • Catalogs
    • Newspapers
    • Official Histories

  • University Documents

    • College / School / Departmental Records
    • Administrative Records
    • Sports Records
    • Marketing and Communications Materials
    • Photographs
    • Even more Photographs!

  • Faculty Documents

    • Manuscripts
    • Correspondence
    • Records
    • Course Notes
    • Research

  • Local and Religious Material

    • Saint Louis History
    • Missouri History
    • Regional Catholic History / Documents
    • Jesuit History / Documents

  • Reference Material

    • Related to our Collections
    • Related to Local History
    • Related to Catholic/Jesuit History
    • Related to Rare Books
    • Related to Archives
    • General Reference

Archives Basics

Are you new to the world of archival research? Do you feel intimidated by the prospect of identifying and locating relevant historical materials? You are not alone. Few users of archives receive formal training in the skills necessary to conduct successful research, and are often left to trial and error as their primary research strategy. We at the SLU Archives are here to guide perplexed researchers through the archival learning curve, and to do whatever we can to make your research experience as simple as possible.

What follows is a list of core competancies that lead to success in archival research. This list was developed by Sammie Morries, Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, and Sharon A. Weiner, and published in a Fall/Winter 2014 article in The American Archivist entitled "Archival Literacy for History Students: Identifying Faculty Expectations of Archival Research Skills." It is intended to serve as a basic outline of what you should know about archival repositories and research. No pressure, though... we don't expect you to have all the answers, and we are happy to answer any questions you have about any of the items listed below. (SAA subscription required to access full article)

Accurately conceive of primary sources

1.) Define and articulate differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources

2.) List common types of primary sources used in conducting historical research.

3.) Articulate the value of primary sources to historical research, communicating a real or imaginary example illustrating value. Explain why historians are expected to use primary sources in their research and scholarship

Locate primary sources

4.) Distinguish between types of repositories that collect primary sources, including libraries, archives, museums, and special collections.

5.) Name some of the wide variety of types of archival repositories, using adjectives that refer to various spheres of organized activity, such as business [or religion, or college/university]

6.) Give examples of some kinds of materials held in different types of archival repositories, such as religious archives, business archives, university archives, government archives, etc.

7.) Locate and effectively use the websites created by archival repositories and special collections libraries, including reviewing finding aids, hours, and policies prior to visit

8.) Locate particular special collections and archival repositories in a given geographic proximity, including capabilities for obtaining copies of documents without travel, and search effectively for primary sources within these existing archives and special collections in the community, state, region, and country

9.) Identify and effectively use (search) the major bibliographic databases for locating primary sources

10.) Describe how to locate and use archival finding aids

11.) Explain the lack of online access to many archival materials.

Use a research question, evidence, and argumentation to advance a thesis

12.) Formulate and develop a research question to be answered using primary sources

13.) Accumulate multiple primary sources, as well as secondary resources, to build or support a case for a research thesis or argument

14.) Evaluate and synthesize information and arguments from both primary and secondary sources for evidence

15.) Construct an argument using primary source materials

16.) Explain the constructed nature of history, some possible reasons for gaps in the historical record that might result from war and other circumstances, and how to identify primsing and possible alternative search strategies for the information one is seeking

17.) Recognize historical styles of handwriting and outmoded printed scripts or fonts. Read manuscripts and books that are written or printed in these

18.) Interpret and analyze both print and electronic primary sources. Include: description of the features and vulnerabilities of the physical object, means for evaluating authenticity including provenance [i.e. origin, creator], methods for historical contextualization, indications of the purpose and intended audience, and observations that may be used to identify bias

19.) Interpret a variety of types of primary sources to glean information from them. Critically analyze and write in a critically informed way about a variety of types of sources used in historical research, such as institutional records, rare books, photographs, charts and maps, manuscripts and personal papers, ephemera, born-digital materials, 3-dimensional artifacts, audiovisual materials, and oral history interviews.

20.) Articulate common biases in primary and secondary sources to be aware of in assessing their trustworthiness

21.) Describe tactics for gaining access to multiple perspectives and narratives

Obtain guidance from archivists

22.) Explain the role and potential value of the research consultation with archives staff

23.) Communicate a variety of information needs effectively to archivists, both orally and in writing

Demonstrate acculturation to archives

24.) Define common terms used by archivists and historians in conducting research, such as "repository," "finding aid," "manuscript," "provenance," "IRB," etc.

25.) Describe the differences between archival records, personal papers and manuscripts, and rare books

26.) Communicate a rationale that justifies security and preservation measures taken by archival repositories

27.) Find the requirements for researchers' use of a specific archival repository

28.) Describe common policies and protocols for archival repositories, including the researcher registration process, the kinds of materials that are commonly not allowed into the repository, and processes for duplication

29.) Describe the care and handling processes for using original physical materials. Explain both why these processes are necessary and why they are important

30.) Articulate the ways in which experiencing and handling original primary sources differ from use of digital or other facsimiles

Follow publication protocols

31.) Explain the differences in copyright for published and unpublished sources

32.) Describe how one can legally and ethically incorporate unpublished sources into one's work

33.) Take effective notes on unpublished materials to capture full citation information for the materials in a paper

34.) Cite different types of unpublished primary sources such as documents, photographs, and artifacts, using more than one style of citation

35.) Describe how to obtain permission from the archival repository or library to quote from, reproduce, and/or reuse the collections in a paper or other type of publishable work

36.) Specify some common restrictions placed on unpublished materials and justify suc restrictions by giving the legal and ethical reasons for them

Have advanced skills

37.) Explain how to locate special collections and archival repositories internationally

38.) Describe some ways that archival materials are collected and processed by archivists, as well as the primary archival theory and practices that guide this work (provenance, original order, etc.)

39.) Recognize common preservation, organization, and archival processing techniques to distinguish the way materials have been altered since being acquired by the repository. Distinguish between the work an archivist may do to make a collection accessible and to preserve it versus the work an author, creator, or collector might do, and give some instances of when to avoid drawing false conclusions based on appearance of the items

40.) Give examples of factors that might influence the order in which materials are organized in an archival repository

41.) Describe effective techniques for conducting oral history interviews so that the interviews can be reused in a publication or scholarly work

42.) Describe common requirements for creating, storing, and publishing oral histories (IRB certification for conducting human subjects research)

43.) Use materials from multiple archival repositories or special collections libraries

44.) Describe some ways in which archival repositories function in other countries and how access to primary sources may differ in those countries

45.) Communicate effectively about one's research experience orally, visually, and in writing

46.) List various ways in which collections in archival repositories and special collections grow over time and how materials that may not have been available on initial visits to archives may become available in the future

47.) Produce a scholarly work that incorporates primary and secondary sources as evidence and is suitable for publication, both in writing and in a formal oral/visual presentation or demonstration

48.) Articulate issues relating to the historical memory of society that are relevant to archival research

49.) Plan all aspects of an archival vist that requires travel and advance accommodations including researching available travel grants

50.) Describe some of the reasons a history major might consider a future career in the archives profession

51.) Interpret and analyze both print and electronic primary sources. Include description of the features and vulnerabilities of the physical object, means for evaluating authenticity including provenance, methods for historical contextualization, indications of the purpose and intended audience, and observations that may be used to identify bias.

  • Essential Questions:
    • Who created the records you are looking for?
    • How did they organize them?
    • When were the records created?

  • Finding Answers:
    • Background research using reference and secondary source material.
      • Published sources and credible websites
      • Citations, bibliographies, footnotes in secondary sources may list relevant archival and special collections
      • Take note of important names, dates, groups, and events related to your topic of interest; be aware of terms and concepts for the time period and subject you are interested in
    • Scope and Content notes of the collection guide.
    • Discuss your interests with the Archivists. Have questions in mind when you arrive.

Archival arrangement is a term for the organizational scheme and sequence of archival materials. At the highest level, archival repositories divide their materials into groupings, or collections, based on the individual or group that created or collected the materials. Within these collections, archivists generally attempt to maintain the original organizational scheme used by the creator. When this is not possible, a new arrangement scheme may be devised based on an assessment of the materials.

  • Primary Arrangement:
    • Creator (i.e. an individual, family, department, or organization)
    • Creator’s Original Order

  • Other Arrangement:
    • Organizational
    • Chronological
    • Alphabetical


NOTE: Archival materials are NOT traditionally organized by subject

  • Access:
    • n. ~ 1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools. - 2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance. - 3. Computing · The physical processes of retrieving information from storage media.
  • Accession:
    • n. ~ 1. Materials physically and legally transferred to a repository as a unit at a single time; an acquisition.

      - v. ~ 2. To take legal and physical custody of a group of records or other materials and to formally document their receipt. - 3. To document the transfer of records or materials in a register, database, or other log of the repository's holdings.

  • Appraisal:
    • n. ~ 1. The process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be accessioned. - 2. The process of determining the length of time records should be retained, based on legal requirements and on their current and potential usefulness. - 3. The process of determining the market value of an item; monetary appraisal.
  • Archives:
    • ‚Äč(also archive), n. ~ 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. - 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization's records of enduring value. - 3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. - 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. - 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. - 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.
  • Archivist:
    • n. ~ 1. 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. - 2. An individual with responsibility for management and oversight of an archival repository or of records of enduring value.
  • Arrangement:
    • n. ~ 1. The process of organizing materials with respect to their provenance and original order, to protect their context and to achieve physical or intellectual control over the materials. - 2. The organization and sequence of items within a collection.
  • Collection:
    • n. ~ 1. A group of materials with some unifying characteristic. - 2. Materials assembled by a person, organization, or repository from a variety of sources; an artificial collection.

      collections, pl. ~ 3. The holdings of a repository.

  • Description:
    • n. ~ 1. The process of creating a finding aid or other access tools that allow individuals to browse a surrogate of the collection to facilitate access and that improve security by creating a record of the collection and by minimizing the amount of handling of the original materials. - 2. Records management · A written account of the physical characteristics, informational content, and functional purpose of a records series or system.
  • [Archival] Description:
    • n. ~ 1. The process of analyzing, organizing, and recording details about the formal elements of a record or collection of records, such as creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work's identification, management, and understanding. - 2. The product of such a process.
  • Finding Aid:
    • n. ~ 1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. - 2. 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 aid1 includes a wide range of formats, including card indexes, calendars, guides, inventories, shelf and container lists, and registers. - Finding aid2 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.

  • Linear Foot:
    • n. ~ 1. A measure of shelf space necessary to store documents. - 2. A measure of motion picture stock; film footage.


      A linear foot measures twelve inches for documents stored on edge, or twelve inches high for documents stored horizontally. For letter size documents, it is slightly less than a cubic foot. The number of leaves within a linear foot varies with the thickness of the material.

  • Manuscripts:
    • n. (ms, abbr.) ~ 1. A handwritten document. - 2. An unpublished document. - 3. An author's draft of a book, article, or other work submitted for publication.


      Other abbreviations include mss for manuscripts (plural) and MsS for manuscript signed. - Manuscript1 is principally text or musical notation on paper, but may be supplemented by drawings. Typewritten documents are generally classified as manuscripts but are more accurately described as typescripts.

  • Preservation:
    • n. ~ 1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. - 2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment. - 3. Law · The obligation to protect records and other materials potentially relevant to litigation and subject to discovery.

      preserve, v. ~ 4. To keep for some period of time; to set aside for future use. - 5. Conservation · To take action to prevent deterioration or loss. - 6. Law · To protect from spoliation.

  • Processing:
    • n. ~ 1. The arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons. - 2. The steps taken to make the latent image on exposed photographic or microfilm materials visible; see archival processing1. - 3. Computing · The machine execution of instructions in a computer program
  • Provenance:
    • n. (provenancial, adj.) ~ 1. The origin or source of something. - 2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.


      Provenance1 is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

  • Original Order:
    • (also registry principlerespect for original orderl'ordre primitifrespect de l'ordre intérieur), n. ~ The organization and sequence of records established by the creator of the records.


      Original order is a fundamental principle of archives. Maintaining records in original order serves two purposes. First, it preserves existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records. Second, it exploits the record creator's mechanisms to access the records, saving the archives the work of creating new access tools.

      Original order is not the same as the order in which materials were received. Items that were clearly misfiled may be refiled in their proper location. Materials may have had their original order disturbed, often during inactive use, before transfer to the archives; see restoration of original order.

      A collection may not have meaningful order if the creator stored items in a haphazard fashion. In such instances, archivists often impose order on the materials to facilitate arrangement and description. The principle of respect for original order does not extend to respect for original chaos.

  • Record:
    • n. ~ 1. A written or printed work of a legal or official nature that may be used as evidence or proof; a document. - 2. Data or information that has been fixed on some medium; that has content, context, and structure; and that is used as an extension of human memory or to demonstrate accountability. - 3. Data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and set aside (preserved) as evidence of that activity for future reference. - 4. An instrument filed for public notice (constructive notice); see recordation. - 5. Audio · A phonograph record. - 6. Computing · A collection of related data elements treated as a unit, such as the fields in a row in a database table.- 7. Description · An entry describing a work in a catalog; a catalog record

All definitions taken from the Society of American Archivists' Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, available at 

Archives are NOT arranged by subject.  Look your subject up in secondary sources, and from those determine who the key players where and when they were doing important things to your research.  Then go to the archives armed with those names and dates.

Expect some detective work.  Working with archival material often involves sifting through large volumes of material while looking for clues to help you to advance your thesis.  These clues are not always immediately obvious.  Ask questions about what you find, and budget more time than you think you need.  Footnotes in secondary sources are a great source of leads to get your started.

Archives are NOT comprehensive.  Make note of new names, dates, and places you encounter.  Be prepared to extend your search across multiple collections and even multiple archives.

Talk to the Archivist.  Archivists can be valuable research allies.  They will know their collections and will be able to help steer you to useful material efficiently.  They will also know about other archives which may hold additional material.  Archivists will also usually either have a good command of the secondary literature related to their collections, or will be able to tell you who does.

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Caitlin Stamm's picture
Caitlin Stamm
Pius XII Memorial Library, Room 307
(314) 977-5493