Archives Moment: Reference Library and the different types of sources

The reference library at the Musée Héritage Museum has developed over the years since our museum’s inception. Our reference library has grown in a variety of ways, including donations and the purchasing of obscure items from antique and book stores. In addition we often have researchers visit our archives to gather primary sources for a book or publication they are working on, then once the work is published they provide us with a copy of their work to place in our library.

Our archives is not primarily about our reference library, the library is here as an aid to help better understand our archival materials.

So, what actually is the difference between archives and libraries?

Often people equate the two as the same, but that is not accurate. Archives are places that hold primary sources, while libraries are places that hold secondary sources. Primary sources are original first-hand accounts of an event or time period that are considered to be the authoritative record of that event. So things like diaries, photographs, and letters are all considered primary sources. And usually there is only one original of the primary source, such as a letter. Although there may be copies of a primary source, generally speaking, there is only one item that is called the primarily source.

Secondary sources on the other hand are often derived from primary sources. Secondary sources analyze or interpret various primary sources in order to create a secondary source. For example, textbooks about any subject will refer to the primary sources they consulted in order to create the book.  A book about rockets might refer to field notes from NASA, for example, when writing about this subject.

Any good secondary source will reference all of the primary sources it consulted, and are used in its text. So, there can be multiple copies of secondary sources.

Wikipedia is another example of a secondary source. If you look up any article on Wikipedia, it will often have footnotes to reference where the original information came from. Wikipedia can be a bit of a slippery slope because you as the reader have to judge whether the referenced footnote is a legitimate primary resource.

While often it’s easy to tell the difference between primary and secondary resources, there are cases that require you to think more about whether your source is a primary or secondary resource. An example would be newspapers. As a whole they may be considered secondary resources, however, we tend to look at individual articles in the newspaper rather than the paper as a whole.

When you look at newspaper articles they could be either a primary or secondary source, depending on the content. For example, if someone writes a letter to the editor, or if the reporter is sharing an opinion on a subject matter like education, then that would be considered a primary source because you are reading an original first-hand account from a person.

On the other hand, suppose you have an article reporting on the scene of a crime where the reporter has interviewed witnesses and viewed photographs of the scene and then reported their findings. This article would be considered a secondary source because the reporter consulted other primary sources (oral histories with witnesses, photographs) in order to give you a second-hand account of the crime scene. Had the same reporter actually witnessed the crime and wrote about his/her personal experience, then you have a primary source article.

There is an excellent online article from the University of New South Wales Sydney that gives you a little more explanation about the difference between primary and secondary sources. While both Archives and Libraries are research facilities, it’s important to note that Archives and Libraries have different purposes and work in very different ways to process or catalogue their materials. Before a book can go into a library, researchers will visit Archives to get primary sources to authenticate what they are writing for their book. While Archives hold predominately primary sources and Libraries hold predominately secondary sources, both institutions can also house some of the opposite sources because it may add context for their main resources.

This is why our Archives at the Musée Héritage Museum also has a reference library, so that if our researchers need more information about a topic, then perhaps we have some secondary sources for them to better understand our primary sources.

For more information about the Musée Héritage Museum Archives, please feel free to contact us at or 780-459-1528.

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