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University of Wollongong Australia

Archival Collections: Defining Archives

Help searching and accessing historical records in archival collections held at UOW and elsewhere.

1. What are 'archives'?

Archives are the non-currrent records of an organisation, an institution or an individual that have been selected for preservation because they have enduring value.

The term archives can also be used to describe a location where archival material is kept and the organisation responsible for collecting archival material (such as UOW Archives.)

1.1 Looking at the above definition in more detail



No longer part of present day or daily usage


Can comprise a range of different materials/formats

Selected (by whom and why?)

The original creator (provenance) OR the current owner OR an archivist managing collections

Preservation (for how long?)

Permanently OR subject to reassessment after a specified time (ie. records having an official 'retention' period)

Enduring value (to whom?) 

A particular individual / family OR an organisation/institution OR a broader community/society as a whole

2. What are some examples of archival records?

  • Manuscripts - documents that have been handwritten or typed but not printed (e.g. letters, diaries, literary works, memorandums, written registers, ledgers)
  • Printed publications (e.g. books, booklets, reports, newsletters, maps)
  • Ephemera - items designed for a specific purpose/event and then likely to be discarded (e.g. posters, pamphlets, theatre programs, exhibition catalogues)
  • Images (e.g. films, photographs, paintings, sketches)
  • Audio recordings (e.g. music, oral histories)
  • Artefacts (e.g.medals, banners, firearms)


Sections of the information in the guide have been adapted from the Understanding and Using Archives Frequently Asked Questions guide on the Archives of Australia web site.

3. What's the Difference between archives and primary sources?

An archive can consist of primary source material and/or secondary source material. For example:

  • the personal archives of an academic may include their diaries and original correspondence, as well as copies of materials they've collected or books and articles they've published on their research area during their lifetime
  • a database archive usually contains backsets of old journal or newspaper publications etc. (eg. Sydney Morning Herald Archives 1955-1995)

For a more detailed explanation of primary and secondary sources see the Historical Primary Sources guide.

4. How do I cite archives and primary sources?

For Specific Advice

See our Referencing guide for information about citing published primary sources.

General Advice about Citing Archives

Whenever you cite archival material you should provide two essential pieces of information: a description of the item AND details of where it is located. 

The latter is required because archival material in most cases consists of unique, unpublished records which are available in only one place (unlike books or other published material held at more than one library).

A typical archival citation should include the following details:

  • place identifier - where the records are held
  • agency name - the name of the person or organisation that created the records
  • record (ie. collection) series number, with record title and date range

If you are referring to a specific item or range of items within that record series you should also include the:

  • individual item number, with item title description and date (if known)
Example of an Expanded Archival Citation

In a bibliography you should provide the full citation details for each archival record/collection you refer to in your essay etc.

For example:

Wollongong University Archives: Francis McCaffrey; D92, Francis McCaffrey Collection, 1865-1932; D92/5, Notebooks.

Example of an Abbreviated Archival Citation

If you refer to the same citation more than once in your essay etc. you may abbreviate the citation the second time rather than write it again in full.

The abbreviation for the University of Wollongong Archives is NWUA (the N denotes 'New South Wales'), so the abbreviation for the above citation would be:

NWUA: McCaffrey; D92/5, Notebooks.

Other Examples

See the examples given in the following guides:

UOW Library  |  Subject readings  |  A-Z journals  |  A-Z databases  |  Copyright  |  Research Online

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