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The Black Experience at Northwestern University Research Guide


What are Archival Collections?

Archives exist to make collections of rare and unique materials, often primary sources, available for research. They are documentary evidence of the past that we use to interpret and understand history. They might reflect the life of an individual, or the history of a group, organization, business, or event. There are repositories that are dedicated to preserving and managing such collections. The archivists at these sites assess, collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to these cultural heritage collections.

Key terms: 

Primary sources: Original documents, evidence, first-hand accounts, created or experienced contemporaneously with the topic being researched.  

Examples: letters, diaries, student organization records, scrapbooks, photographs, maps, land records, blueprints, Greek organization records, course bulletins & catalogs, artifacts, residence hall records, oral histories, films, audio recordings, newsletters, yearbooks, and newspaper articles written during the time being researched. 

Secondary sources: Works that are not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the topic being researched. Instead, they rely on primary sources for information. They typically analyze and interpret primary sources. 

Examples: books, journal articles, magazine and newspaper articles, biographies. 

Additional Resources: 

Analyzing Sources

Here are some questions to keep in mind when analyzing primary sources: 

  • Who is the author or creator?
  • When was the primary source created?
  • Who was the intended audience? 
  • What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
  • What was going on historically when this source was created?
  • What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?
  • What are some limitations of the source?
  • How does this source relate to other sources you're consulting? 
  • Is this source reliable?
  • Does your understanding of the source fit with scholar's interpretations, or does it challenge their argument? 

Additional Resource: 

What are the steps to doing archival research?

  1. Begin by determing your research topic or question. Alternatively, browse collection catalogs for inspiration (see step 3). 
  2. Identify sources related to your topic or question and repositories with related collections. Some recommended sources include an Internet search, consulting bibliographies, digital collections, and searching footnotes and endnotes in monographs.
  3. Search for collections at archival repositories and review their finding aids for related collections. Here are a few useful guides and catalogs for African American research:

Key term: A finding aid is a guide to an archival collection. It helps researchers find primary and secondary sources relevant to their research. Each finding aid provides historical or biographical context and explains how it is organized and its inclusive contents. Here’s a guide that describes the parts of a finding aid.  

  1. Contact the archives to make a research appointment. Check the repository’s website or call beforehand to learn about their access policies.
  2. Visit the archival repository to research the selected collection(s).
  3. As you research, be open to adjusting your topic as you come across new information. Also, keep in mind that all of your research might not come from a single repository or collection.  
  4. Speak to the staff at the archives for recommendations on additional collections you might consult.

These resources provide more guidance on the archival research process: