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Yale Library

Archival Research for Senior Exhibit Fellowship: Interpreting primary sources

This libguide will introduce basic concepts on archival theory, practice, and research methods.

Keep in Mind...

Archival research can seem like a bureaucratic and static process, and it often is - you have to register as a user, lock your belongings away, and have only one folder and document out at a time. If you're searching online, very few repositories have their holdings digitized, and you have to request special digitization or online access to the materials. However, there are ways to make this a more dynamic and iterative process, and the best way to do that is to think about how you can engage with the documents you're viewing.

Primary sources are typically thought of as authoritative fact, but in reality they are open to interpretation. Archives are not neutral spaces. Creators and collectors alike are biased, and so the very archival collections you research are biased. You as the researcher have a lot of power and autonomy to interpret and synthesize the information you get from primary sources, and to make connections between documents, collections, and creators.

Exercise: View the image on the left. It's a digitized document from MS 592 John Vliet Lindsay papers collection. Examine the document, the associated metadata in the Digital Collection entry, as well as the finding aid. Then, review the list of research questions on the right to help you get started with a close examination. When you're done, think about how these questions help you engage with the document. 


Cartoon from John Lindsay's Mayoral Campaign

Collection Information for Cartoon

Basic questions to start with:

  • Who was the author or creator?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Who is the document about?
  • What message or theme is being communicated in this document? How is it being communicated?
  • Whose voice is present, whose voice is missing?
  • What can be learned from any gaps and/or silences in this document and the collection it's in?
  • When was the document created?
  • How was the document created? What were the processes involved in the creation?
  • Is there an event, or series of events, this document is associated with?
  • What can be learned from examining the document by itself, and what can be learned from this document in the context of the folder, box, collection it's in?
  • What can be learned from this document, and what questions still remain?

Moving Away from a Reliance on Text and Language

Understand that the archive is not a static, dusty, collection of past times. The archive is changeable; things, objects, spaces, and people are in a constant state of flux. Consider the materiality of the archival space and the physical weight and movement of the archives.

See the archive as a space, a set of practices, and a site for the intervention of agents, both human and non-human. Try to move beyond a reliance on text and language to the non-textual and non-pictorial; examine archival records as material culture, as traces of events and actions from within historical contexts. Study the size, shape, and weight of records as these structure their physical interaction with you, the researcher. The physical condition of collections and collection materials can provide insight into the histories of their use and stewardship. 

Think about the assemblage of archival materials as it is presented to you. It is often the case that this situational combination of things was established by the archivist and based on the materiality of the archival things. Your time with the collection allows simultaneous consideration of its series and individual components--you have the opportunity to explore interrelationships between documents and take note of non-textual information. Are two papers the same or different? Are there blank pages? Questions such as these put you in the place of the creator and previous users of the collection.