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Poly Archives & Special Collections: Archival Terminology and Definitions

Guide to the collections in the Poly Archives at Bern Dibner Library, New York University

Using the Materials

Poly Archives

Appointments are necessary for all researchers who wish to consult archival and manuscript materials. To schedule an appointment, please email Poly Archivist Lindsay Anderberg at Please allow 24 hours advance notice when making appointments. 

For more information about Planning Your Visit see our website. 

To locate material across this or other collections at NYU Libraries, you can Search our Finding Aids.

Provenance Definition

Provenance: Refers to the source and arrangement of the original collection. When we talk about the provenance of a collection, we are referring to the original creator(s) of a collection, as well as how the collection came to be acquired by the archives.  It may have been donated directly by the creator or transferred to the archives by another university department.  It may have had a less direct path.  Understanding provenance allows for the understanding of why, how, and for whom the collection was created.

Provenance is a central concept to archives and special collections.  When arranging a collection, the archivist follows respect des fonds, meaning that the original order of the materials will be preserved as best as possible.  Although archivists may arrange items by material type (usually for preservation concerns), by subject, or by year, these arrangements must be considered carefully to ensure they are logical according to the original order and context, rather than imposing a generic classification system.

Primary and Secondary Source Definitions

Primary Source:  Material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness.

Primary sources emphasize the lack of intermediaries between the thing or events being studied and reports of those things or events based on the belief that firsthand accounts are more accurate. Examples of primary sources include letters and diaries; government, church, and business records; oral histories; photographs, motion pictures, and videos; maps and land records; and blueprints. Newspaper articles contemporaneous with the events described are traditionally considered primary sources, although the reporter may have compiled the story from witnesses, rather than being an eyewitness. Artifacts and specimens may also be primary evidence if they are the object of study.

Secondary Source: A work that is not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject, but instead relies on sources of information.

A work commenting on another work (primary sources), such as reviews, criticism, and commentaries.

Definitions provided by the Society of American Archivists, Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology.

Finding Aid terminology

In order to determine the contents of a collection, you must understand how archival collections are arranged and described.  The finding aid is the key to understanding the collection.  Refer to these terms below when you're first using the finding aid.  

Another important concept to archives is provenance.  A discussion of provenance is on the lefthand side of this page.


Finding aid: A structured guide to the collection.  Finding aids will provide information about the subject, provenance, date range, location, and size of a collection.  The sections following this basic information typically include: Biographical/Historical Note, Scope and Content Note, Arrangement, General Physical Description, Restrictions, Administrative Information, Access Points, and a Container List.

Biographical/Historical Note: In the case of personal papers, this note describes the person.  For company or administrative records, this note describes the history of the company, department, etc.

Scope and Content Note: Provides a brief description of the types of materials found in the collection (i.e. photographs, blueprints, newspaper clippings) and a brief description of intellectual content.

Arrangement: Lists the series in a collection and describes basic arrangement between and within series.  Collections and series are commonly arranged by format, chronologically, or by subject.

General Physical Description: Alerts the user to fragile materials, damaged items, previous or potential mold growth, and the general condition of items in the collection.

Restrictions: Outlines conditions governing use and access

Administrative Information: Provides proper citation format for items in the collection. Also contains an acquisition note detailing how, when, and from whom Poly Archives acquired the collection.

Access Points: Includes personal and corporate names and subjects.  Similar to a keyword or subject search in a library catalog.

Container List: A break-down of the items in the collection by box and folder number.  The items will be arranged by series (as described in the Arrangement Note).  The container list is the most specific part of the finding aid.


Primary Sources in the Poly Archives

Location, Hours, Contact, & Services Information

Plan Your Visit

To plan your visit to the Poly Archives see our website