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Archives and Special Collections

Overview on using archives, including definitions, collection highlights, and how to find and cite materials

Introduction

What are Archives?

Archives are places that collect and preserve historical records of enduring value with the purpose of providing access for research and study. These records offer a direct window into past events and serve as evidence of past lived experiences.

Archival records take many forms, including correspondence, photographs, diaries, financial and legal documents, moving images, sound recordings, social media websites, and computer files. Governments, businesses, universities, libraries, historical societies, and other organizations around the world maintain archives.

What can you find?

Archives mostly contain primary sources and some unique, rare, or annotated secondary sources.

Primary sources are the raw materials of history. They refer to sources that provide eyewitness accounts of past events. Published materials can be considered primary sources if they are produced by someone with firsthand experience and reflect the viewpoints and attitudes of the time under study.

Examples of primary sources include diaries/journals, correspondence, newspapers, photographs, scrapbooks, works of art, speeches, and oral histories.

Secondary sources refer to interpretations, analysis, commentary, evaluation, and summarization of primary sources. A secondary source document is created by someone without firsthand experience and reflects how an event is understood in hindsight.

Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, scholarly books, and journal articles, bibliographies, and reviews.

Archives vs. Libraries vs. Museums

Archives are not libraries or museums, although all three institutions do share the same goal of making information available to the public for study.

Archives

Libraries

Museums

Mostly unpublished texts (e.g., letters, diaries, manuscripts, etc.) and some objects/artworks Mostly published texts (e.g., books, journals, etc.) Mostly objects and artworks
Items are usually unique and not available anywhere else Items are usually widely distributed and available at other libraries Items are usually unique and not available anywhere else
Items do not circulate and must be accessed on-site. Only select items are available online Most items circulate and can be accessed online Items do not circulate and must be accessed on-site. Only select items are available online
Items can usually be handled with care Items can usually be handled with care Items cannot usually be handled
Usually acquire collections of many different types of items Usually acquire individual items Usually acquire individual items
Cataloged at the collection level Cataloged at the item level Cataloged at the item level