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Archival Research Tutorial: What is an Archive?

Learn how to effectively conduct archival research and use primary sources in your research projects.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary Sources are first-hand accounts or evidence of an event or topic. They are often created around the time of the event and by people who lived through it.


  • Artwork and artifacts
  • Audio and video recordings
  • Blogs and Social Media Posts
  • Business/Organization Records
  • Datasets and Research Notes
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Drafts of published and unpublished writings (books, articles, etc.)
  • Letters and Emails
  • Maps
  • Photographs and scrapbooks

Learn the Lingo

Wondering what a finding aid is? Or maybe a series? Archivists use specialized terminology; the glossary below define terms encountered during the research process.

Society of American Archivists Term Glossary

What is an Archive?


Archives contain one-of-a-kind materials such as diaries, letters, and photos that are preserved because these materials have long-term value for research.  Archives exist to collect, preserve, and provide access to their research collections in perpetuity.

Types of Archives:

  • historical societies (eg. Massachusetts Historical Society)
  • academic archives (eg. Moakley Archive and Institute at Suffolk University, Harvard University Archives)
  • corporate archives (eg. Coca Cola, Google)
  • governmental archives (eg. National Archives, town or city clerk's offices)

Moakley Archive and Institute Collections

The Moakley Archive and Institute is home to Suffolk University’s institutional archives and special collections. Use the research collections to explore the following topics:

  • Congressman John Joseph Moakley
  • United States Congress
  • Women in the French Resistance
  • Eugene O’Neill
  • Early history of radio
  • El Salvador’s civil war
  • History of Suffolk University
  • Ford Hall Forum
  • School Integration

Understanding Collections

Common Characteristics:

  • mix of formats and media (photographs, recordings, scrapbooks, letters, news clippings, dataset, and objects)
  • divided into categories or “series” (ie Correspondence, Financial Records, Published Works, Photographs)
  • might represent one side of the story, you might need to consult other Archives or other collections

What's in a Collection?

  • archivists create finding aids to help researchers understand the contents of archival or manuscript collection (see example)
  • the finding aid, or research guide, provides an inventory of all the materials in a group of records (folders, items, or artifacts)
  • finding aids also have narrative descriptions of the scope and content of the collection (dates covered; volume of material; significant topics, people, places, or events).