Archival Research Glossary

You may come across these terms as you engage with archives. If you see an archival term you don’t know, try looking it up in the Society of American Archivists Dictionary of Archives Terminology:

Finding aid: A descriptive index to an archival collection. Usually includes a scope note (summary of what the collection contains), biographical note about the subject, and a container list, which breaks down how the collection is organized and what is in each box and folder. The description is an overview: it will not describe every item in the collection. The finding aid will also usually provide information about any restrictions on access, how the collection should be cited, how it was acquired, and terms governing use and reproduction. Example: Katherine Dunham Collection at Emory University.

Special Collections: The unit of a library that manages non-circulating research materials. These collections often have additional restrictions on usage, such as the requirement to use materials in a designated reading room with a staff member present.

Subject heading: Descriptive words or phrases that are used in the catalogue record for an item to identify the subject of the material. The Library of Congress maintains a national database of approved subject headings that is used by many libraries and archives. 

Manuscript: In the context of archives, “manuscripts” can refer to unpublished or handwritten documents, or the author’s draft of a published book. Abbreviated as mss (manuscripts) and MsS (manuscript signed). 

Papers: In the context of archives, “papers” describes records created by an individual or a family. Ex.: “The papers of Arthur Mitchell are held by Columbia University.”

Primary source/Secondary source: A primary source is defined as an eyewitness account of events that was created at the time, or recalled later by an eyewitness: for example: a diary, a letter, an oral history, a videorecording, or financial records. A secondary source is mediated by an author: for example, an article or book written about a subject or event that the author did not directly witness. 

Provenance: information about the origins, custody, and ownership of archival materials. 

Fonds: “The entire body of records of an organization, family, or individual that have been created and accumulated as the result of an organic process reflecting the functions of the creator” (from SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology)

Series: “A group of similar records that are arranged according to a filing system and that are related as the result of being created, received, or used in the same activity.” (from SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology)


1. Alicia Alonso, photographed by John Lindquist, 1955. Courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Archives

2. Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, photographed by Christopher Duggan, 2017. Courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Archives