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Help Guide

Introduction to Research Using Primary Resources and Archives

When searching the Explore Chicago Collections portal, you will pull up records for various types of materials, including individual items (e.g. images, photographs, manuscripts) or descriptions of entire collections housed at archives and libraries in the Chicago area. Some items are viewable online and others are physically located at local libraries and archives. The libraries and archives with collections listed in this portal have different policies for using materials, so you will need to visit the websites of individual libraries or archives to determine how to utilize a particular collection, and whether you can request certain materials online or if you will need to plan a visit to the collection.

If you are new to using archival collections, you may encounter unfamiliar terminology in the portal associated with archival research. The glossary below provides definitions of key concepts in archival research and research using primary resources.

For further guidance, see Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research by the Society of American Archivists.

Archival Research: Glossary of Key Terms

The following definitions are from A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology copyrighted by the Society of American Archivists. Consult the glossary for 2,000+ additional entries.

Archives: 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. - 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization's records of enduring value. - 3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. - 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. - 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. - 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.

Archival description:  1. The process of analyzing, organizing, and recording details about the formal elements of a record or collection of records, such as creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work's identification, management, and understanding. - 2. The product of such a process.

Administrative Records: A document that has been preserved because it facilitates the operations and management of an agency, but which does not relate directly to programs that help the agency achieve its mission.

EAD (encoded archival description): A standard used to mark up (encode) finding aids that reflects the hierarchical nature of archival collections and that provides a structure for describing the whole of a collection, as well as its components.

Ephemera: Materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use.

Finding aid: 1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. - 2. A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.

Inventory: 1. A list of things. - 2. Description · A finding aid that includes, at a minimum, a list of the series in a collection. - 3. Records management · The process of surveying the records in an office, typically at the series level.

Primary source: Material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness.

Provenance: 1. The origin or source of something. - 2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.

Rights management: A system that identifies intellectual property rights relevant to particular works and that can provide individuals with access to those works on the basis of permissions to the individuals.

Secondary source: 1. A work that is not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject, but instead relies on sources of information. - 2. A work commenting on another work (primary sources), such as reviews, criticism, and commentaries.

Scope and Content: A narrative statement summarizing the characteristics of the described materials, the functions and activities that produced them, and the types of information contained therein.