Archives usually have a collection scope. This identifies the types of materials an archive collects. Not all archives collect all records; for instance, Santa Clara University's Archives & Special Collections collects records created by our university, but not by other universities. Similarly, a Civil War archives would not contain material from the Vietnam War. By looking at an archive's collection scope, you can determine whether or not that institution has archival materials related to your topic of interest.
Once you've identified an institution that has records on your topic, you can begin to look at specific collections or materials. Collections should have finding aids--documents that outline the subject, history, and contents of a collection. These may be general and only list the names and numbers of boxes and/or folders, or they could be very specific, and list each individual document included in a collection. Generally, popular collections have more detailed finding aids (because the collection is used a lot!).
Some institutions, like SCU, have digital collections. These are collections of documents and items that have been scanned and made available online. These usually include large, high-quality images of the archival materials and their metadata (the important information about each item). Digital collections can be great for class use, because you don't have to go to the archive in-person. Often, if the quality of the items is large enough, you can print surrogates for use in your classroom. Alternatively, if teaching online, you can share the direct links to the items with students, or have them search the collections themselves!
Finally, if you haven't found what you need by looking through a finding aid or digital collection, you may want to reach out to the archivist at an institution. Once you let them know what subject you're interested in, they may be able to suggest archival materials for you to use with your students.
In the blog post Selecting Primary Sources for the Classroom: Considering Moment of Use, Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence Tom Bober describes some of the ideas he keeps in mind when choosing primary sources for use in the classroom. Key ideas include:
The webinar Considerations for Selecting Primary Sources (54:55) provides information regarding strategies educators can use to select primary sources and provides tips on how to use sources to discuss difficult topics and include diverse viewpoints.
For more information about finding and choosing archival materials, you can review the publication Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, written by Laura Schmidt and published by the Society of American Archivists.
When we work with archival materials, we need to ask a number of questions about the materials. The answers to these questions will help us and our students to understand the motivations of the creators and what they were hoping to achieve. Questions to ask are as follows:
The following video (4:24) from History Note 'Stache provides a brief breakdown of analyzing primary sources: