photo of stacks (lower floor)

Demystifying Primary Sources for Historical Research

Archives vs. Libraries

There are two main types of research institutions in which you can find primary sources: archives and libraries.

Libraries tend to collect published material while archives focus on collecting unpublished material. In reality, the boundaries between the two are often blurred. Here are some major differences between libraries and archives.

Archives Libraries
Closed stacks Open stacks
Collect original, unpublished material (e.g. letters). Collect published material (e.g. books, journals).
Material may be organized in the way the collector organized his/her collection. Material is organized within a classification system such as Library of Congress call numbers.
Unique material. Other copies of the material may be available in other libraries.
Group of material is described on a number of different levels: fonds level, series level and item level. Material is described on an individual level (e.g. catalogue record for a single book).
Items do not circulate; you cannot take the material home. Items circulate; you may take the material home.
You search for materials on your subject using finding aids (listing of everything in the fonds). You search for materials on your subject using an online catalogue.

Other Major Differences

Library and archive materials also differ in the following ways:

Intent of Creation
Books are meant to be read so the author has the researcher in mind. Archival materials are the by-products of everyday activity.

Specificity of Subject
Books are usually about a specific subject but archival materials from the same author may deal with more than one subject.

Library materials are arranged to facilitate browsing (hence open stacks) but researchers are not able to browse archival holdings (closed stacks).

Everything you need to understand a book is contained within itself, but archival records derive their meaning from their context so you may need to read other documents to understand the one in question.

created by: Agatha Barc & Colin Deinhardt | updated: 9 February 2018