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University Library

Archival Research

Purpose of this Research Guide

This guide is intended to explain a little about special collections and archives:

  • what they are
  • how to find them
  • how and why to begin using them

And most importantly, how to take advantage of their unique nature to strengthen your own research.

Special collections are materials that have significant historical or cultural value and are considered important enough to be preserved. They include rare books, photographs, personal letters, periodicals, media, and artifacts. Our emphasis at Sonoma State University is on the history, people, and culture of the North Bay region of California, but some of our collections include content on many other subjects, and some of our material dates from as far back as the 17th century. 

Although Sonoma State University's Special Collections and University Archives are carefully protected, they are made available to anyone wishing to incorporate primary sources into research projects or instruction. Our collections offer a rich environment for intellectual discovery and can greatly enhance your research experience. We make it easy for you to explore our collections online or in person. If you'd like to see our unique materials for yourself, make an appointment to come see us.

What is an archive?

An archive as "a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved" (Merriam-Webster). Archives contain archival materials, which "are information objects that serve as evidence of past events" (Peter Van Garderen, 2007).

Although some institutions might have more distinct meanings for the two terms, "special collections" is often at least related to, if not synonymous with, "archives."

Boxes of documents on repository shelving at The National Archives

Photo by The National Archives (United Kingdom) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What is a digital archive?

digital archive is similar in purpose to a physical archive, but the historical documents and objects that provide evidence of the past have been digitized (often by scanning or photography from an original physical document, unless a document was created digitally in the first place) and made available online.

Digital archives are usually created with a goal of preserving historical objects and making them available to researchers.

What can you find in an archive?

Whether in person or through online searching, you can locate many unique primary and secondary materials in an archive. For instance, many archives preserve and make accessible diaries, letters, photographs, and other primary source documents. Archives sometimes contain extensive and hard-to-find secondary source collections. For instance, SSU Library Special Collections contains a unique special collection of small press books from Bay Area publishers. These aren't one-of-a-kind, but they are part of a unique collection of materials. In addition, many archives house files of pamphlets and clippings on subject areas and are usually local in nature. For instance, an archive may maintain a file on the local town government or on specific people and places that are important on a local level.

Who can use material in an archive?

Archives are often available to any researcher; however, there are sometimes strict guidelines about exactly how collections may be accessed and used. For more details, see Making Archives Appointments.

Why Archival Research?

What is archival research and why is it important?

Archival research is research involving primary sources held in an archive, a special collections library, or other repository. Archival sources can be manuscripts, documents, records (including electronic records), objects, sound and audiovisual materials, or other materials.

Archival research can be challenging, but it can also be tremendously rewarding and inspiring. In using archives, you may not find exactly what you are looking for, but you often find much more information and many more ideas than you expected.‚Äč

Archives are important because they provide evidence of activities and tell us more about individuals and institutions, offer personal stories, and increase our sense of identity and understanding of cultures. They can even ensure justice. Archives provide records of human existence and interactions. And because records weren't usually created for the purpose of historical research. they often provide a less biased account of events than secondary sources.