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History 303 - Finding Primary Sources in Archives

Help with archival research for HIST303

How to Cite Primary Sources

Citing primary sources properly is important, because the materials found in an archive or special collections repository are often unique and so cannot be referred to elsewhere. Persons trying to locate your sources at a later date will need to know exactly where and how to retrieve them. The particular form of your citation will depend upon the citation style you adhere to (e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, etc.). In general, citations progress from the narrowest to the broadest form of information, or vice versa. The basic elements that should appear in your citation are:

  • Repository: Where is the item held?

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

  • Collection: Include the title and the collection or catalog number.

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

  • Box and Folder Number 

Ex: Box 1, Folder 3

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

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

The final citation:

Oral History with Kenneth L. Waller, 1980. MS170 Kenneth L. Waller Bataan Prisoner of War Collection, Box 1 Folder 3. Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

When you are at 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. They are there to help you!

When taking photos in the archives

Sometimes you are allowed to take photos of the materials in the collection for your personal reference use. If you are allowed to take photos, you should make sure to document the location of the item. 

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 that 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.