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Special Collections and Archives

Tips and tools for researching primary sources in Special Collections and Archives and online

How to Cite Primary Sources

Citing all sources is important! Including primary sources, which defy many typical citation styles because the materials found in an archive or cultural repository are often unique and so cannot be found elsewhere. People trying to locate your sources at a later date will need to know exactly where and how to retrieve them. The format of your citation will depend upon the citation style you use (e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, etc.), but all have common elements.

When you are researching the archives, it is a good idea to note down information from the finding aid or guide to the collection and from labels on the folder and box - even if not all the information is required in the citation itself. Citing primary sources can be tricky. Never hesitate to ask the archivist, librarian, or your professor for assistance. We are here to help you!

The basic elements that should appear in your citation are:

  • The document itself: Include the creator, page, section, and date information where necessary.

Ex: Oral History with Kenneth L. Waller, 1980.

  • Location in the collection (Box and Folder Number, or Flat File and Folder #s)

Ex: Box 1, Folder 3

  • Collection: Include the title and the collection number

Ex: MS170 Kenneth L. Waller Bataan Prisoner of War Collection

  • Repository: Where is the item held?

Ex: Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA

The final citation:

[item description.] [Collection Number] [Collection Title], [box/flat file and folder #s]. [Repository information].

Example: Oral History with Kenneth L. Waller, 1980. MS170 Kenneth L. Waller Bataan Prisoner of War Collection, Box 1 Folder 3. Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

A Tip! often the archives will include their "preferred citation" in the collection finding aid, see here for example.

Citing Digitized Primary Sources

Many digitized primary sources can be found online. When citing a digitized primary source, you will want to include a link to where you found the source. For the above example, the citation if you used the digitized primary source would look like this:

Oral History with Kenneth L. Waller, 1980. MS170 Kenneth L. Waller Bataan Prisoner of War Collection. Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.  

[description of item]. [Collection title]. Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. [link to item, or item identifier].

When taking photos in the archives

Sometimes you are able to take photos of the materials in the archive for your personal reference use. If you are allowed to take photos, you should document the location of the item in order to cite it or request copies. 

It is VERY IMPORTANT that you record the citation information for the collection while taking the photos so you can properly cite the images.


  • take a photo of the box label, which documents the collection number, collection title, and box number
  • take a photo of the item in the folder and capture the folder label in the frame.


Example of a box of part of a collection :Example of folder highlighting areas to find collection info, folder description, and box and folder info


Image credit for publication

[identification of item], [Name of collection], Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA. [link to image in Online Archive]
Caption/Credit Example:
Doman Moon Chapel (1967), Sheet 1 (detail). Mark Mills Papers, Special Collections and Archives, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA.