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Archival Research: What Are Archives?

What are Archives?

The New York Public Library succinctly defines archives as "the records created by people and organizations as they lived and worked."

  • Archives usually consist of unpublished materials that accumulate organically over the course of time and that are preserved for the enduring value of the information they contain, for their value as artifacts, or as evidence of the work or activities of the creator.

  • Archival collections can range in size from a single item to thousands of boxes and contain just about anything that was created or saved by a person or organization.

  • No two archival collections are the same.  And no single repository or collection will contain everything.

  • Because of random nature of how papers are saved, materials relating to individuals and organizations will be scattered among myriad archival collections in multiple repositories.

  • The unpublished materials in archival collections are usually one-of-a-kind and exist only in the collection where you found them. The unique nature of the materials is what makes them so valuable to researchers and distinguishes them from ordinary library items. Thousands of libraries may hold copies of particular novel, for example, but only one can hold the original first draft of that work in the author’s hand.

  • The vast majority of the unpublished archival material that exists in libraries, historical societies, and manuscript and institutional repositories is not available online. You can readily find descriptions of collections on the web, or images from collections on the web and in library databases, but the materials themselves for the most part will be found only in their original format in folders and boxes in archival collections around the world.

How are Archives Arranged?

Archival materials are grouped into collections according to provenance and kept in their original order whenever possible.

  • Provenance, a fundamental archival principle (also called respect des fonds), requires that materials be grouped into collections according to their source, not according to their subject. If a manuscript library acquires the papers of a novelist, for example, those papers would not be combined with the papers of other novelists already in the library. The papers would be kept in a collection named for that specific person and described as single unit.
  • Original Order is the arrangement of materials established by the creator of the records. Archivists maintain original order whenever possible because the arrangement can shed light on how an individual or organization functioned and can also simplify access to the materials. When there is no discernible order, archivists sort the materials into series such as correspondence, writings, photographs, clippings, etc., in order to facilitate research and access.

(Source:  Theodore R. Schellenberg, Principles of Arrangement, Staff Information Paper Number 18, Published by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, 1951.)

How Are Archival Collections Described?

Archival collections are described in documents called finding aids or collection guides.

  • Finding aids are written to give the repository intellectual and physical control over their holdings and to help researchers find what they are looking for within collections.

  • Finding aids can take many forms and range in detail from a brief summary of a collection to an itemized list of its contents, but most finding aids will fall somewhere in between. The level of detail and description depend on the resources of the repository and the collection itself.

Archival Terminology

Archival Collection - A broad term encompassing both personal papers and organizational records collections.

Archives - Records in any format created by or received and maintained by an organization that are determined to have permanent value. When housed in repositories outside the institution that created them, the collections are often called Organizational Records.

Personal Papers or Manuscripts - Collections of materials in any format created by or received and maintained by an individual or family in the course of daily life. Examples include: the Truman Capote Papers (NYPL) and the Shirley Hayes Papers (N-YHS).

Artificial Collections - Collections of items assembled by an individual or institution from a variety of sources, usually on a topic or event (the sinking of the Titanic or the March on Washington, e.g.), a person (Abraham Lincoln, e.g.), or a format (menus, matchbook covers, postcards, or product advertising, e.g.). Examples include: The Radio Scripts Collection (NYPL Schomburg) and The World War I Collection (N-YHS). 

Manuscript Repository - An institution that collects historically valuable records of individuals, families, and organizations. The New-York Historical Society Library and The Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library are manuscript repositories.

Institutional Repository or Archives - A repository that holds records created by or received by its parent institution. The Municipal Archives of the City of New York, The National Archives of the United States, and the Carnegie Hall Archives are institutional repositories. The archives of some organizations, especially commercial enterprises, exist solely to serve internal needs and outside resarchers may have limited or no access to the records.

Primary Sources  - Materials that contain direct evidence, first-hand testimony, or an eyewitness account of a topic or event under investigation. They can be published or unpublished items in any format, from handwritten letters, to objects, to the built environment.

Secondary Sources - Works that analyze and interpret other sources. They use primary sources to solve research problems.

Primary vs. Secondary - The way you engage with a source determines whether it is a primary or secondary source for your project. Book reviews, for example, are typically considered secondary sources.  If the subject of your research is book reviews themselves, however, they would be primary sources for your project.

(Sources:  The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2008; Introduction to Archival Terminology, NARA.)

Types of Primary Sources

Unpublished archival materials are just one type of primary source.  In The Information-Literate Historian, Jenny Presnell describes nine categories of primary sources:

  1. Public Records - census records, court records, wills, tax records, etc.
  2. Official Records - laws, civil codes, legislative hearings, treaties, etc.
  3. Personal Documents (manuscripts) - letters, diaries, oral histories, financial records, etc.
  4. Artifacts/Relics - clothing, furniture, tools, music, art, and other items people make and use
  5. Organizational Documents (archives) - meeting minutes, financial records, correspondence, etc.
  6. Images - photographs, drawings, cartoons, posters, videos, graphics, paintings, etc.
  7. Architecture, City Plans, and Maps - buildings, blueprints, plans, maps, etc.
  8. Media and Other Mass Communication - newspapers, magazines, journals, radio, tv, twitter, facebook, websites, etc.
  9. Literary Texts - novels, plays, poems, essays, etc.

(Source:  The Information Literate Historian, 93-95.)

What Gets Saved and Why?

In his book, Archival Strategies and Techniques, Michael R. Hill writes about the nearly random ways documents end up in archival collections.  In a chapter titled "Archival Sedimentation, " he says: 

"Through the processes of primary ["people and organizations create, discard, save, collect, and donate materials of potential archival interest"], secondary ["people with a wide variety of motives make consequential decisions about what to do with the deceased's papers"], and tertiary sedimentation ["sorting, erosion [i.e., fires, floods, and other disasters], and arrangement of materials after arrival at an archive"], materials come to rest in boxes and file folders, on shelves and in vaults behind the locked doors of archival repositories. These materials are archival sediment [emphasis added], residual traces of human activity. They are selective traces, however, filtered by the combined imprint of personal machinations and idiosyncrasies, family sensibilities, professional envy and collegial admiration, organizational mandates, bureaucratic decisions, archival traditions, social structure, power, wealth, and institutional inertia. From such traces, we seek data from which to make sense of individuals, organizations, social movements, and sociohistorical settings.

(Source:  "Archival Sedimentation" in Archival Strategies and Techniques by Michael R. Hill).

Elements of a Finding Aid

No two archival collections are the same, so no two finding aids will be the same, but most comprehensive electronic finding aids contain the following elements:

  • Descriptive Summary – The basic bibliographical details you would find in a library catalog record, including the repository, creator, title, date, abstract describing the subject matter of the material, quantity of materials, and call phrase (the collection number assigned to the collection by the repository).

  • Biographical / Historical Note – Information on the creator of the collection, including significant historical details that provide context for the archival materials.

  • Scope and Content Note – A brief description of what’s contained in the collection, including the types of materials and the subject focus of the collection, with highlights sometimes mentioned.

  • Arrangement – A list of the series into which the collection is organized, or a brief description of the organization of the materials, i.e., “The collection is arranged by type of material, then chronologically.”

  • Access Points – The subject headings, including names, organizations, topics, places, document types, family names, occupations, and other terms, under which the collection is indexed.

  • Administrative Information – Provenance of the collection, access and use restrictions, preferred citation, related materials in the repository.

  • Container List – A list of boxes, folders, and volumes in the collection. You’ll need to know the box and folder numbers to request materials at the repository.

  • Finding aids may also include: Series descriptions, a list of items separated from the collection, and notes on related collections in the repository.

Tips for Using Finding Aids

  • Many manuscript and archival repositories have online catalogs or databases that allow searching across collection finding aids. Look for these and search them for sources on your topic.

  • Not all collections will have detailed finding aids, but when they do, always spend time reading them thoroughly before diving in to a collection.

  • A close look at a finding aid will tell you not only what is IN a collection, but what is NOT there, saving you time.

  • Archivists research the subjects of the collections they process and frequently write detailed historical and biographical notes that contextualize the materials. You can learn a great deal by reading a comprehensive finding aid.

  • A container list in a finding aid will tell you the type of material you’ll find in a box or folder, but it usually won’t give you the specific details of the items in that container. A typical folder title might be “Correspondence, 1911-1914.” The only way to find out who is writing to whom and what is being said is to request the box and open the folder to read the letters yourself.

  • Not all collections have finding aids and not all finding aids are online. Visit a repository’s website to get an overview of the archival holdings and then contact the staff to find out if they might hold materials relevant to your topic.

  • As a way of dealing with backlogs of unprocessed collections, many archival repositories have begun in recent years to follow an arrangement and description methodology called MPLP, or "More Product, Less Process," especially for large contemporary collections.  This trend in processing means that archivists spend less time arranging and describing materials in order to provide access to more materials sooner.  For researchers, this means they may have to spend more time looking through boxes of materials because collections may only be described in broad strokes in finding aids that mention just the most obvious contents and contain little research and scholarship.