Admission to the research library is free with Museum admission fee. Researchers can determine if WHM has material relevant to their project by contacting the librarian in advance. To access Finding Aids for the collections in the Worcester Historical Museum Archives, email

Appointments are strongly recommended for the viewing of any archival manuscript collections, maps, and photographs

Visit our Online Photo Repository

What is an Archive?

Archives exist both to preserve historic materials and to make them available for use. They exist to make their collections available to people, but differ from libraries in both the types of materials they hold, and the way materials are accessed.

Archives can hold both published and unpublished materials, and those materials can be in any format. Some examples of materials that can be found in an archive are manuscripts, letters, photographs, moving image and sound materials, artwork, books,  diaries,  artifacts, and the digital equivalents of all of these things. Materials in an archives are often unique, specialized, or rare objects, meaning very few of them exist in the world, or they are the only ones of their kind.

Since materials in archival collections are unique, the people (archivists) in charge of caring for those materials strive to preserve them for use today, and for future generations of researchers . Archives have specific guidelines for how people may use collections (which will be discussed later in this guide) to protect the materials from physical damage and theft, keeping them and their content accessible for posterity.

Archives use documents called finding aids to describe a collection. A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) is a text document providing a description of the contents of a collection, just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book . It can describe the background of a collection (how and when it was formed, how the archives acquired it, etc .), and how the archival staff has arranged or ordered the materials in the collection.

By using a finding aid, a researcher gets an understanding of a collection in its entirety, sees the relationships between its component parts, and locates the portions of a collection pertinent to research.

What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are the “materials on a topic upon which subsequent interpretations or studies are based, anything from firsthand documents such as poems, diaries, court records, and interviews to research results generated by experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and so on.”*

Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, usually by witnesses or people who were involved in the event. Many primary sources were created at the time of the event but can also include memoirs, oral interviews, or accounts that were recorded later.

Visual materials, such as photos, original artwork, posters, and films are important primary sources, not only for the factual information they contain, but also for the insight they may provide into how people view their world.  Primary sources may also include sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated but not interpreted. However, in the sciences or social sciences, primary sources report the results of an experiment.

It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a particular source is primary or secondary, because the same source can be a primary source for one topic and a secondary source for another topic.  David McCullough’s biography, John Adams, could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams.

Secondary Sources offer an analysis or a restatement of primary sources. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Some secondary sources not only analyze primary sources, but also use them to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion. Examples of secondary sources include dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and books and articles that interpret, analyze, or review research works.