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Primary Sources

Learn where to find primary sources and how to contextualize them.


This guide is designed to help you:
  • understand what an archive is

  • learn how to make an appointment through the Brown University Library to conduct research with archival materials

What are Archives?

An archive 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. Archival materials are primary sources and include things like letters, diaries, manuscripts, newspaper articles, as well as audio/visual and born-digital items like tweets or oral histories. 

Who Works in Archives?

The professionals who assess, collect, organize, preserve, and facilitate access to archival collections are called archivists. While there is a lot of overlap in the types of work that librarians and archivists do, these are often separate sorts of positions that require slightly different types of professional training. 

Where Do I Find Archives?

Archives can be found anywhere. You might have collections of your own personal records, or those of your family members. These are called personal archives. In an institutional setting, archives are often nested within libraries, though sometimes they also exist as their own unique space. In a university setting, archives are often housed within a library's special collections. 

At Brown University, there are many archival collections which can be found in a number of places:

  • The John Hay Library is home to Brown University's special collections, including numerous archival collections on a range of topics, such as American poetry and theater, LGBTQ+ life and culture, military history, activist histories, and the history of extremism.
  • The University Archives and Manuscripts is the official home for the University's valuable historical documents, collections, photographs, and publications. The Archives also holds professional and personal papers of some faculty and alumni. The University Archives are housed in the John Hay Library.
  • The Christine Dunlap Farnum Archive and the Feminist Theory Archive are maintained as a partnership between the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and the Brown University Library. These archives are physically housed at the John Hay Library.
  • The John Carter Brown Library holds one of the world's largest collections of materials for the study of the Americas prior to 1825. The John Carter Brown has a large number of archival collections, which can be accessed through BruKnow, the Brown University Library Catalog.

Accessing Archival Collections

Items in an archive do not circulate, meaning you cannot bring these items home. Rather, you typically need to make an appointment with the library in order to use these objects. You can learn more about how to set up an appointment to use Brown’s archival collections here. While the Brown University Libraries are currently closed, some collections can be accessed online. You can search the catalog or contact the library with questions.

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a document containing detailed information about a specific collection of materials within an archive. Archival collections can be quite large, and physical collections can contain hundreds or thousands of records. Finding aids help institutions to maintain intellectual control of their collections, and they also help researchers determine what sorts of items can be found in a given collection. 

Finding aids generally give an overview of the whole collection, including describing the provenance –or the origins and history of ownership– of items in the collection. A finding aid will also:

  • include information on the scope and content of the collection
  • explain how the collection is arranged or organized
  • describe the items in the collection to the box level


Because there are so many records in archival collections, finding aids typically describe what sorts of items are housed in each box rather than describing every individual item in the collection. Let's look at an example.

Here is the finding aid for the Christina Sharpe papers at the John Hay Library.

A screenshot of the finding aid for the Christina Sharpe papers at the Brown University Library. The image shows the collection overview, which lists the collection's title, date range, creator, size, an abstract, the language of the materials, the repository where the materials are housed, and the collection number.

Finding aids generally begins with a collection overview. This tells us general information about the collection, including the title, date range of the materials within the collection, the creator (if applicable), an abstract describing the general theme of the collection, the language the materials are written in, and where the collection is housed. The overview also describes the extent, or size, of the collection. Archival collections are measured in linear feet. Typically, one archival document box is considered one linear foot. 

A screenshot of the finding aid for the Christina Sharpe Papers. The image shows the arrangement section of the finding aid, which explains that the collection is split into 7 series.

When we look at the "Arrangement" section of the finding aid, we can see that the collection is broken into 7 series. The "Scope and Content" section of the finding aid gives us a brief overview of the sorts of materials in each series. 

Finding aids also give researchers biographical and historical information about a collection, details about issues of access and use pertaining to materials in the collection, administrative information, such as when the library acquired the collection, and explain to the researcher what sorts of materials are housed in each box and folder. 

Test Your Knowledge

Try to locate a finding aid in Brown University's collection. You can access finding aids through BruKnow, Brown's online catalog, or through Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online (RIAMCO). You can filter your RIAMCO search results by institution in order to exclusively display finding aids from Brown University. 

Once you have selected a finding aid, try out locating the following information:

  • What is the title of the collection?
  • What is the date range of the collection?
  • How many linear feet is the collection?
  • How many series are in the collection? 
  • Where is the collection located? How would you set up an appointment to access the materials? 

You can learn more about Brown's archives and manuscript collections here

Further Reading

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research. Laura Schmidt, The Society of American Archivists. 2016.

John Ridener. From Polders to Postmodernism : a Concise History of Archival Theory. Duluth, Minn.: Litwin Books, 2009.

Archives and Social Justice Reading Group from the University of Texas at Austin. 

The Hows and Whys of Finding Aids. Dorothy Berry, Harvard University Library, 2020.

Identifying and Addressing Archival Silences in Your Research. This tutorial provides an overview of what archival silences are, some underlying reasons on why they exist, and how you can address them in your research.

Learning Outcomes

This guide was designed to help you:

  • understand what archives are, including what sorts of items are housed in an archive.
  • learn how to gain access to materials in an archive
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