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Citing Primary Sources

Elements for Citing Archival Sources

Because of the wide array of things archival researchers need to cite, style guides offer more flexibility in citing rare materials than they do for articles or recent books. At the same time, you need to provide detailed citations that provide the information a future researcher would need to find their way to the same item you saw. In your citation you’ll want to include as many of these elements as you can:

  • Item creator and description
  • Item date
  • Item location
  • Collection name
  • Holding library

This guide is based on the Chicago Manual of Style, but those basic elements will be the same, no matter which style guide you’re using.


Other Style Guides

Need more advice on citing archival items using MLA or APA? Here’s what they have to say:

Item Creator & Description

Item Creator & Description: Who created the item you’re using and what is it? The creator could be the person who wrote a letter, an organization that created a flier, or a business which produced an advertisement. Sometimes the creator of an item may be the same as the creator of the collection you found it in, but just as often it’s someone else. 

Many items in archives don’t have a clear title, but you’ll still need to identify the item you used so a future researcher will know they’re looking at the same item you did. You'll want to give a title or description, and possibly the type or format of the item. 


Less Helpful

Robin Morgan, Annotated planning notes for the Miss America protest

Untitled document

Odessa Massey, Scrapbook

Oral history interview

Hand-held fan featuring African-American woman in US Military uniform

Disney advertisement

Asa Spaulding to Val Washington

Spaulding Letter


Item Date

Item Date: When was this item created? Sometimes it's easy and there's a clear date on your item. If it doesn't have a date, include your best guess using “ca.” to indicate “circa” or put the date in brackets. If you really can't tell, it's okay to use "n.d." to indicate "no date."


Less Helpful

17 August 1953


n.d., ca. 1915-1919


1 March 1862 -19 April 1862


[4 August 1972]


Item Location

Item location: Where did you find this? This may be the name or number of the folder, the particular series within a collection, and/or the number of the box or volume you found this document in. Some of our collections are big! Give others a clue where to look.


Less Helpful

Box AS-15

Large blue box

Native American Student Coalition, Box 5

Not putting anything!

Folder 94, Administrative Files Series


Collection Name

Collection Name: The full name of the collection you're working with. You can find this at the top of a collection guide or in the catalog record. It’s probably on the physical box as well, but double check because sometimes we use abbreviations on boxes or names get changed. For digital collections, this will be the title of the digital collection. Our digital collections list this in the right sidebar.


Less Helpful

American Economics Association Records

ALFA Records

Theresa El-Amin Papers

Smith Diary

Bingham Center Women's Zine Collection

Duke Oral History

Eula Wake Wilson Photograph Collection Zine Collection

Holding Library

Holding Library: The library, archive, or institution where you saw the item you’re citing. Depending on the collections you're using here, this will be "Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University" or just "David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University." If you're not sure, check the collection guide or ask us. Some institutions (Yale University, Library of Congress, many others) have more than one affiliated archives, so be specific. For well known-institutions you don’t need to provide the location, but do include it if it’s a repository with multiple locations, like the National Archives, or if it could be confused with another institution.  


Less Helpful

Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC Special Collections

Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

University Archives

National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland


Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, MA

Smith Library

Gratefully adapted from a guide created by Maureen Callahan, Smith College Special Collections