Gaps and Silences in Archives and Special Collections
While archives have been viewed as unbiased repositories of the past in its entirety, they are in fact spaces of gaps and silences. These gaps and silences are due to changing opinions of archivists have considered "of enduring value," and can reflect historical, institutional, and internalized racism, classism, sexism, and ignorance of marginalized genders and sexualities. Biases may also impact the archivist's description. Archives are not neutral.
Hello! I am an Archivist at Kennedy Library's Special Collections and Archives. I can help you navigate archives research and primary sources, from Kennedy Library's Special Collections and Archives to around the world and online.
Special Collections and Archives
Kennedy Library, Cal Poly
Primary Sources are found in a range of places, including:
in archives and cultural repositories
with families and organizations who created them
reproduced in books and publications
digitized and online
Cultural repositories with historic records and archives have been digitizing them and sharing them online for decades. What is online usually represents a small selection of the repository's records. If you find primary sources online, you can trace the materials back to their repository and see what additional materials are available.
When you are starting your search for primary sources online, these are some things to consider:
Who may have created materials or collected materials on this topic? Where might their records live now?
What formats of materials may have been created about this topic? (letters, objects, published work, newspaper articles, maps, architectural drawings, oral histories, interviews, photographs, etc)
With this information, you can begin searching online to find where these materials currently live. Archives and cultural repositories often have collecting scopes that guide their collections. They might gather materials on a particular topic, on a geographic location, on a particular organization or community. Other tips include checking citations in published research on the topic. Which archives are researchers and scholars citing?
We based this form on our own process of research. Research is an iterative process and can take a lot of time, and you might not find what you are looking for. Often when we are searching, we have to reconsider our research questions based on what materials we discover.
Primary Sources Online - Overview
Primary sources are available online in two different ways:
freely available on the Internet from cultural institutions (examples: Cal Poly's Online Archive, Calisphere, American Memory from the Library of Congress, Densho, SAADA).
available via library databases (example: Tribune Archives, Historical Sanborn Maps) that may be used from any computer with access to the campus network. Off-campus access is limited to Cal Poly students, faculty, and staff. These are subscription databases that the library staff identify in collaboration with the community.
Primary sources are usually found in digital collections. Types of digital collections include:
The University of California's free public gateway to a world of primary sources. More than 200,000 digitized items — including photographs, documents, newspaper pages, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, advertising, and other unique cultural artifacts — reveal the diverse history and culture of California and its role in national and world history.
The OAC connects with Calisphere. At the OAC you can search across finding aids, (which are descriptions and inventories of archival collections) at California repositories. If you find collections at the OAC, you can connect with the repository to request digital copies of the materials or plan a visit to the repository.
Digitized historic maps of US cities and towns. Cal Poly users have access to a subscription database of California Sanborn maps, which are frequently used for historical research and preservation and restoration efforts.
Primary Sources - US History - Selected
Here are some of my "best bets" starting places for starting archives research
DPLA connects people to materials held within America’s libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage institutions. All of the materials found through DPLA—photographs, books, maps, news footage, oral histories, personal letters, museum objects, artwork, government documents, and so much more—are free and immediately available in digital format.
Densho is a grassroots community organization that preserves and shares history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II
Subscription primary source databases available at Kennedy Library
While many archives have digitized archival materials available for public free access online (like at Cal Poly's Special Collections and Archives), sometimes, archives materials are only available online through expensive paid subscription. Kennedy Library has primary source databases paid for by the library and your tuition. Access to these resources are limited to students, faculty, and staff at Cal Poly.
You can browse and search these subscription databases through the library's list of databases.