Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Special Collections and Archives

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

Bias in Archives and Special Collections

Archives are spaces of gaps and silences. Sometimes this is due to historical and internalized racism, classism, sexism, and ignorance of marginalized genders and sexualities. This enters both into what you find in a collection--archival silence--and what you read in the description, or archival neutrality. Archives have never been neutral.

Sometimes, what you discover, or don't discover, in archives has less to do with digitization or description, and more to do with historical and internalized racism, classism, sexism, and ignorance of marginalized genders and sexualities. This enters both into what you find in a collection--archival silence--and what you read in the description, or archival neutrality.

Archival silences are the voices missing from the collections. These gaps in the historical record preserved by archives are real, and are not accidental. Archivists have made decisions over time about who and what is deemed important enough to be preserved, and these decisions have influenced the historical record.

Archival neutrality is the tone in archival description that erases or avoids inequity. For a long time many archivists believed we were just including facts, and avoided language that made us feel like we were interpreting, or editorializing. Be cautious of possible description this way in finding aids and online archives.

Adapted from the work of Dorothy Berry.

Gaps and Silences in the Archives

Watch out for bias in primary sources:

Like any source, primary sources are created by people with opinions and experiences which influence their points of view. Two people discussing the same place and time might have very different points of view.

For example: a University President and a student attending the same event might have very different experiences of the event and create different records of the event. These records may both be useful to your research, and evaluating primary sources for bias is important and using more than one primary source can be helpful to see the bigger picture.

Be aware of gaps and silences in the archive

Archives do not preserve history in its entirety. There are always voices or representation that is missing from the archives. Reasons for these gaps and silences include:

  • the western worldview, white, privileged, and male views are more predominantly represented in historic records
  • records created by the wealthy, the most educated, and those with the highest status in society have a much greater chance of surviving and being preserved
  • archives staff have made decisions over time about who and what is deemed important enough to be preserved, and these decisions have influenced the historical record
  • that material objects were not able to be created by a community, or were destroyed

Strategies for addressing archival gaps and silences in your research:

  • acknowledge that archival silences exist
  • address archival silences in your research by answering:
    • what is missing?
    • whose perspectives are not represented?
    • What could be the reasons for these archival silences?
    • Check if you can find evidence for the missing perspective elsewhere (in another archives? in the community?)
  • Critically reflect upon archival silences and address them in your research.

Adapted from the USC Special Collections and Archives and Michaela Ullmann.