Art and the Archive

This guide provides students with information on how archives can be used for research for various art forms.

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a tool (often a document) that can be online or in a paper format, which provides descriptive information about archival collections and their contents. Researchers use finding aids to identify collection materials of interest to them, and to request those materials from a repository. Finding aids provide background information about the collection, and generally include a list of all materials in the collections by box, folder, or item.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are original materials that were created at the time of an event or activity. They are generally firsthand accounts - rather than secondhand interpretative accounts.

Primary sources come in all kinds of forms, including diaries, letters, interviews, organizational or business records, photographs, maps, audio recordings, memoirs, and more. They can be published or unpublished works. Because they are often created by somebody who experienced or witnessed it firsthand, primary sources represent a specific view point and human experience.Primary sources are useful because they allow researchers to engage with materials from a particular era or activity in a direct, personal, and hands on way.

Secondary sources are generally removed from the actual event or activity. They are created after the event by people who were not directly involved with the event. They can be published or unpublished works. Secondary sources can offer interpretations, summaries, and analysis of past events, and they can be based on primary sources. An encyclopedia article or a book about the American Civil War written by a historian in 2020 are both examples of secondary sources.