Sources and Archives

Sources represent the substance of historical investigation. This section explains the process by which a historical document becomes a source. There are different types of sources as well as various approaches to dividing sources into different categories. Sources can be found in archives in their original form, in libraries as published sources, and elsewhere. Some sources are published in source editions or made available as digital reproductions. Historians can also compile their own sources by conducting oral history research. Various historical auxiliary sciences are concerned with specific types of sources.

What Are Sources?

In historical studies, sources are records which grant us insights into the past. Texts, images, interviews with contemporary witnesses, sound recordings and physical artefacts, among others, can all serve as sources. Crucial for any historian is an understanding of the basic difference between historical sources and secondary literature. In everyday speech, the word “source” is often synonymous with the term “source of information”, an expression which encompasses all potential persons or things from which knowledge can be obtained (conversation partners, books, television programmes, old documents, etc.). In history, however, a distinction is drawn between primary sources and specialist academic literature (also known as secondary literature), which also relies upon sources when investigating the past.

The dividing line between secondary literature and sources is sometimes unclear, especially in relation to more recent history. Whether a text should be classified as secondary literature or as a source depends not only on its quality or age, but above all on the perspective from which we view it. For example, a study on Basel church history will use Rudolf Wackernagel's book Beiträge zur Geschichte des Basler Münsters (Basel 1881-1885) [Contributions to the History of the Basel Cathedral, Basel 1881-1885] primarily as secondary literature. A study on regional historiography, however, will view Wackernagel's work first and foremost as an example of historiographical representations of the late nineteenth century, and thus as a source.

The term “(water) source” evokes an image of naturalness and purity, thereby suggesting that a “return to the sources” (ad fontes) can allow the past to be accessed directly and understood immediately. In reality, however, this is impossible for two reasons. First, each record of the past is produced in very specific circumstances for specific purposes by specific persons. Second, each source comes with its very own history stretching right up to the present during which it would typically have undergone a number of transformations. As such, a source does not simply speak “for itself”; to enable it to do so – i.e. to be able to understand it and accurately interpret it – we must know the context in which it was created as well as its subsequent history as an artefact. Establishing these facts is the function of source criticism.

In principle, all artefacts from the past which have survived into the present can be regarded as a source. In practice, however, a record from the past only becomes a source when it is used to answer a historical question or to glean information about the past. Source selection is a critical step in this process; the sources which you consult will strongly influence the nature of the claims which you can make about the past.

Source Typologies

As the quantity and variety of potential sources is enormous, there have been and continue to be various attempts to impose a sense of order on this mass of information by compiling source typologies. Some of these approaches will be introduced briefly in this section. In doing so, a distinction will be drawn between typologies which base themselves on the material properties of sources and those which relate to source content.

Given the extraordinary variety of written sources, it is neither possible nor worthwhile to list or classify all source typologies here; nevertheless, Hans-Werner Goetz’s attempt to provide an overview of medieval text sources is worth noting (Hans-Werner Goetz: Proseminar Geschichte : Mittelalter, Stuttgart 2014, pp. 109-217). Knowledge of the key types of written sources is useful for source interpretation, a process which involves relating a source’s original aim and purpose – its “bias” – to your own research question.

Material Properties

The historian Paul Kirn (1890-1965) classified sources according to their material characteristics, defining them as texts, objects or facts. For example, a Roman-era battle may have yielded reports about the battle (texts), archaeological artefacts left behind on the battlefield such as coins, weapons and skeletons (objects), and the legacy of a Roman imperial border running to the south of the battle site for centuries thereafter (historical facts). Most abstract is the notion of historical facts, which can also include linguistic features, names (place names, in particular, often testify to the dominant local language at the time of a settlement’s founding), institutions or customs.

Source typologies which draw from the field of media studies reflect the growing significance of audio-visual media by distinguishing between texts, images, audio documents and material objects. Digital sources pose new challenges both for history as a discipline and for archives as institutions due to their sheer mass, the difficulties of ensuring that they remain permanently archived, and their instability (they can be altered at any time in ways which are barely detectable).

Substantive Criteria

Substantive criteria for source typologies are derived from the distinction between vestiges and traditions which was drawn by the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884), a difference later expanded upon by Ernst Bernheim (1850-1942). This distinction assumes that there are a) records of the past which were only created for contemporary purposes and which happened to survive into the present merely by chance (vestiges); and b) records which were consciously produced for the sake of posterity with the aim of conveying a particular image of the contemporary era to subsequent generations (traditions). Sources which can be classified as vestiges, however, still do not provide unfiltered access to the past, because each new source would have been created with particular intentions in mind and/or for a specific purpose. As such, these objectives must still be considered when interpreting vestiges. However, because it is often difficult to draw a strict dividing line between vestiges and traditions (are personal diaries or newspaper articles, for example, written for the sake of posterity or with only the present in mind?), this distinction has come to be regarded as outdated. It does remind us, nevertheless, that for every source which we analyse, we must always carefully consider what its creator sought to convey to future generations and which information is revealed rather more inadvertently. More recent theories also reflect this distinction based on purpose of production, distinguishing, for example, between monuments or messages (i.e. traditions) and documents or traces (i.e. vestiges).

The idea that sources can be categorised according to how they relate to reality was first posited by Gerhard Theuerkauf (1933-2014). He proposed three categories of sources: factual sources (i.e. those which describe what happened), fictional sources (what could have happened), and normative sources (what should have happened). According to Theuerkauf, however, these categories can overlap within the same source.

Source Groups

Besides attempts to compile source typologies, scholars have also sought to divide sources into groups on the basis of other common characteristics identifiable during source analysis. These efforts, which divide sources into genres, do not reflect an attempt to compile a more comprehensive classification system for sources.

Notable here, for example, is the genre of self-testimony (also known as ego documents), i.e. sources which are primarily written to provide information about their author. These sources have received increasing attention from historians in recent years.

Serial sources are related sources which are systematically produced over an extended period of time, for example by bureaucrats or bookkeepers. The individual documents within a source series often follow a similar format.

The Archive as a Repository for Sources

“Archives are institutions which systematically collect, store and provide access to written, audio and image sources” (Translated from the Historische Lexikon der Schweiz: “Archive”). As such, archives hold many of the original sources which historians consult during their research. Archives are run by state institutions or private organisations such as voluntary associations, companies or foundations.

The most important archives are those which are overseen by the state. In Switzerland, each level of government (municipal, cantonal and federal) operates its own archives. Alongside the records generated by public institutions, state archives often hold additional collections, including those belonging to private individuals or organisations (often referred to as private archives). Other types of archive include company archives (e.g. the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) Heritage Foundation) or specialist archives (e.g. the Swiss Social Archives in Zürich or the Swiss Economic Archive in Basel). Many large libraries also possess their own so-called manuscript collections, which can incorporate books from the pre-printing press age as well as many other manuscripts. An overview of important archival catalogues can be found here.

Every archive has its own archival structure which evolves over time in line with its collections and as a result of the attempts by its staff to bring order to these. Earlier cataloguing methods followed the so-called principle of pertinence, according to which documents were classified by topic (or occasionally by document type). This meant that documents were often removed from their original context. Newer archival practices, in contrast, adhere to the principle of provenance, by which documents are catalogued in a way which corresponds to the context of their production (e.g. by the institution which produced them). Because documents which have been archived according to the principle of pertinence can no longer be classified by provenance, most archives possess older collections catalogued by pertinence as well as newer collections catalogued by provenance. In the Basel-Landschaft State Archive, for example, collections which were catalogued before about 1950 follow the principle of pertinence, while newer collections are ordered by provenance.

Which Archives Hold Which Collections?

To the extent which they have been preserved, the written records of the medieval corporations which ultimately became part of today’s institutions of state (e.g. the city of Basel) are usually held in their corresponding modern archives (i.e. the Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft state archives). Many universities, meanwhile, continue to operate their own archives. Although the Basel guilds also remain in existence, guild archives have been transferred to the state archives in order to guarantee the preservation of their collections and to enable researchers to access them more easily. Researchers should check on a case-by-case basis whether the records of defunct institutions, such as former monasteries, have been preserved and, if so, in which archives these can be accessed. In Switzerland, a municipal, cantonal or federal archive is always responsible for archiving the printed and digital records of the contemporary institutions of state. Recently produced documents remain classified to the public for a retention period. This usually lasts for 30 years in the case of general records and 100 years for records relating to natural persons. Although classified collections may be viewed during this period, a viewing application must first be submitted, and specific conditions of use may apply (e.g. names appearing in the documents may be anonymised). Private archives, such as company archives or aristocratic family archives, each maintain their own set of rules. Unlike state archives, they are not legally obliged to provide public access to their collections.

The Difference between Archival Documents and (Medieval) Manuscripts

After Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in 1454, libraries were inundated with ever greater quantities of books which had been produced with this new technology. Before the arrival of the printing press, which was able to print books in hitherto unimaginable numbers, books had been published in the form of manuscripts which had to be produced individually and by hand. Strictly speaking, the technical term “manuscript” (“Handschrift” in German) refers only to these hand-produced works. Because only some medieval “books” have been reprinted – whether in the form of early modern printed editions or as more recent source editions – medievalists are sometimes required to consult the original manuscripts. Manuscripts are generally to be found in institutions which also collect books, such as national, regional, municipal or monastic libraries which also boast a medieval manuscript collection. A manuscript collection can also incorporate written documents which should actually be classified as archival material. Indeed, manuscripts, which always take the form of a single copy of a book, should not be confused with handwritten archival documents: legal documents, letters, inventories, municipal assembly books, etc. are original archival documents in their own right which are typically held in federal, cantonal, municipal or monastic archives.

Source Editions

In archival science, a source edition is an original source or series of related original sources which has or have been published alongside accompanying critical commentary. These comments draw readers’ attention to errors in the original or to inconsistencies between different versions of a source. They also provide background information and identify aspects of a text which may not be apparent to readers. Source editions can cover a specific collection of sources, the collected works and writings of a particular individual, or assorted sources relating to a specific topic (known as a sourcebook).

Source editions, especially sourcebooks, are by their very nature incomplete; they can never incorporate more than a fraction of the available source material. Nevertheless, source editions do come with a number of benefits for researchers. An introduction can shed light on the context in which the original sources were created, while the marginal comments provide explanations of key terms, informative commentary, and references to further interesting sources.

Because a carefully compiled source edition represents a major undertaking, most source editions are produced as part of larger projects which can run for decades or even centuries. Most nation states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries promoted their own source edition projects. Alongside those in Switzerland and Germany, these included the “Muratori” project in Italy, France’s “Recueil des Historiens de Gaule et de la France” and the “Rolls Series” in England. Source editions vary in terms of their structure, their scholarly standards and the type of sources which they select. Because key features of source editions have evolved over time, the same large source edition project may have produced publications of varying academic quality. For a lack of alternatives besides much more demanding archival research, historians often continue to work with older source editions which do not conform to present-day academic standards. As a general rule when consulting a source edition, consider its aims and corresponding selection of sources.

In recent years, source editions have also been released in a variety of new digital forms. To be classified as source editions, these digital publications must fulfil the same criteria as source editions which are published in print: above all, they must offer a precise reproduction of an original text with accompanying critical commentary. Ideally, digital source editions should also conform to new digital standards, for example by adhering to the Text Encoding Initiative. Genuinely digital publications enjoy many advantages over printed source editions (see also the section on working with digital sources). Most significantly, digital texts can be subjected to a full-text electronic search. Furthermore, headwords can easily be assigned, while other information (such as names of persons and places) can be inserted into the commentary to promote more precise search results and to establish links with related passages and texts. The digitised annual accounts of the city of Basel (1535-1610) provide a good example of the opportunities and benefits which a digital source edition can offer researchers. Users can search for different financial records using various freely combinable search criteria. Within very little time it is thus possible, for example, to trace the development of one specific tax receipt across the whole reporting period. This example illustrates that the availability of source editions in digital form can significantly reduce the workload of researchers and stimulate new avenues of research. On the one hand, this is a very positive development (which you should certainly take advantage of during your studies), but it also carries with it the danger that other equally interesting source collections which have not been published in (digital) source editions may be overlooked and thus ultimately end up ignored by research.

The two linked examples from source editions – the first a reproduction from a medieval manuscript and the second a copy of a diplomatic note from the records of the Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (Dodis) project – illustrate how source editions are structured as well as how they should be read.


A calendar (also known as a regesta) is a special form of source edition which does not reproduce original texts in full, but briefly summarises their most important points. Typically used to provide a synopsis of legal documents, calendars usually offer a paraphrased version, but occasionally incorporate selected quotations from the original. Calendars also contain information on where and when a source was created as well as details on relevant persons (especially in the case of individuals mentioned in legal documents), the call numbers with which the original sources can be located in an archive, and references to related source editions. Older source edition projects in particular were often published in a hybrid form, combining elements from both conventional source editions and calendars (e.g. the “Eidgenössische Abschiede” or the “Basler Urkundenbücher”).

Digital Copies

Not to be confused with source editions, digital copies are scans or photographs of sources which have been made available online. While these may also spare you the need to visit an archive, they lack the transcriptions and critical commentary of a quality source edition. Image sources are also made available in digital form in some databases. The quality of the so-called metadata (i.e. information about a source, such as the date of its creation or the name of its author, which is not necessarily provided in the source itself) can vary significantly from digital copy to digital copy. Those with more complete metadata come closer to fulfilling the standards of a source edition.

Digitisation projects can generally only capture a fraction of the available sources in archival collections. As such, they digitise a selection of sources chosen according to various criteria, e.g. their content, how well they are preserved, legal considerations and/or available funds. Many archival catalogues, including that of the Basel-Stadt State Archive, also offer access to digitised records in their collections. Catalogues of digitised sources are listed under “Source Databases” in the section on research resources.

Digital copies of printed sources are sometimes also available in a hybrid form as documents which are fully searchable, albeit with some degree of error, using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. However, these texts are often not checked for errors, nor are they accompanied by any critical commentary. Although the original source is available as a text (and not just as a mere scan thereof), such texts do not meet the standards of a source edition.

Source Databases

There have long been efforts among historians to compile comprehensive registers of archival holdings. The old auxiliary science of source studies has been rendered obsolete in recent times by the proliferation of source databases, which has made searching for sources significantly easier. The value of a database depends on the accuracy and detail of its headwords and source descriptions; a database does not search through the actual content of its sources, but through the meta-details recorded for each source (i.e. any information on content, author, date of creation, archival location and/or source editions in which it has been published). More and more databases now provide direct access to digitised copies (i.e. scans or photographs) of sources. More specialised databases allow advanced searches by source type (e.g. images, manuscripts or early printed works).

Depending on the aims of your research, it can also be worthwhile to search for smaller, more specialised databases. A good example thereof is the self-testimony database developed at the History Department (see here). Source databases are not to be confused with digital source editions.

In the Literature, Bibliographic Aids and Research Resources section of this toolkit, source editions and source databases are listed separately.

Specialist sub-disciplines, the so-called auxiliary (or ancillary) sciences, have developed within the discipline of history to study specific types of written or material sources (e.g. official documents, coins, seals, heraldry, etc). These include:

The study of official documents: diplomatics

The study of coins: numismatics

The study of seals: sigillography

The study of emblems and other armorial bearings: heraldry

The study of historical handwriting: palaeography

Historical geography

The study of the sequence of past events: chronology

The study of family lineages and ancestry: genealogy

Related disciplines such as archaeology, art history, sociology, etc. can also offer crucial findings and insights, both for historical research in general as well as for our engagement with specific sources.

Literature and Useful Tools on Working with Sources

Brandt, Ahasver von: Werkzeug des Historikers. Eine Einführung in die Historischen Hilfswissenschaften, Stuttgart 1996 (Kohlhammer Urban-Taschenbücher. Geschichte/Kulturgeschichte).

Brundage, Anthony: Going to the sources : a guide to historical research and writing, Wheeling, IL 2002.

Burkhardt, Martin: Arbeiten im Archiv. Praktischer Leitfaden für Historiker und andere Nutzer, Paderborn 2006 (UTB).

Dobson, Miriam: Reading primary sources : the interpretation of texts from nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, London 2009 (Routledge guides to using historical sources).

Harvey, Karen: History and material culture : a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, London 2009 (Routledge guides to using historical sources).

MacNeil, Heather: Trusting records : legal, historical and diplomatic perspectives, Dordrecht [etc.] 2000 (The archivist’s library).

O’Toole, James M.: Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, Chicago 1990 (Archival fundamental series).

Reid, Kirsty; Paisley, Fiona: Sources and methods in histories of colonialism : approaching the imperial archive, London, New York 2017 (The Routledge guides to using historical sources).

Rosenthal, Joel Thomas: Understanding medieval primary sources : using historical sources to discover medieval Europe, London 2012 (Routledge guides to using historical sources).

Rusinek, Bernd-A.: Einführung in die Interpretation historischer Quellen. Schwerpunkt: Neuzeit, Paderborn 1992 (UTB für Wissenschaft : Uni-Taschenbücher).

Sangha, Laura: Understanding early modern primary sources, London 2016 (Routledge guides to using historical sources).

Zanish-Belcher, Tanya: Perspectives on women’s archives, Chicago 2013.

Südwestdeutsche Archivalienkunde - LEO-BW. The site presents types of archival records and sources from the early Middle Ages to the immediate present from southwest Germany.