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Introduction to Primary Source Research: Definitions & Concepts


Repository: the institution that holds material; could also be called an archive. The WVRHC is an example of a repository.

Processing: the steps taken to prepare archival material for your use. Broken down into these two categories:

  • Arrangement: the organization of materials in an archival collection
  • Description: Information about the archival material. You'll interact with this type of description in the Finding Aid
    • Levels of Description: This tells you how deep the description of the material goes.
      • Collection: general explanation of the entire collection
      • Box level: overview of the material held in the box
      • Folder level: Normally this will be noted as the folder title, gives you an idea of what the folder contains
      • Item level: each item in a folder is described - very rare to find item level description

Linear Feet: one measure of the size of a collection. Because of the varying sizes of boxes, the size is noted in feet. If you see that the collection is 3 linear feet of material, this means that the boxes take up three feet on the shelf. If there is only a collection level description, knowing the size of a collection helps you to understand how long it could take to work through all the boxes.

Closure period: an agreed upon period of time that archival material will not be accessible to researchers.

Explore the Society of American Archivists Glossary or the Dictionary of Archives Terminology for any other terms you're unfamiliar with


Historical Context

Historical context is something you’re most likely familiar with, but quickly: primary source material wasn’t created in a vacuum. You need to understand the socio-political, economic, and even religious environment the creators were in to understand the material they produced.

This will also help you to better understand the lived experiences of historical actors. By placing people in their historical context, you can better understand how they came to make decisions and take certain actions. It does not mean you have to agree with or approve of their actions. It is also very important to consider the impact their actions had. What were the values of their time? How did their actions match or counter those values? What was the reaction to their actions? Was the creator held accountable in their own time or at a later time?

Physical Context

Archivists strive to maintain original order when processing collections and the reason we ask you to keep material in order in the boxes in folders is not just so paper doesn’t go missing. We do this to help researchers see how the creators organized their papers.

If you think about how you organize your own stuff, you most likely have a rationale behind why you’ve done the things you’ve done
So if you apply this thought process to the creators of archival material, you’ll understand that is reason and intention behind original order. By working through material in order, you might be able to tease out a better understanding of the creator and then the material.


Types of boxes

You'll see different types of boxes listed in finding aids and it's good to understand their size, so you know how much material could be in them (images via Gaylord)

Document Case                                                                                                               Record Carton


Can be 2" or 5" wide, but are always 15" wide and 10" tall.                         Better known as a bankers box - also 15"X10", but are 12" wide