What is an Archives?

Archives, sometimes called archival repositories, contain one-of-a-kind materials such as diaries, letters, and photos that are preserved because these materials have long-term value for research. In the Institute Archives & Special Collections we collect the papers of faculty, staff, administrators, students, and alumni as well as records produced by university departments.

Holdings in archives are often unique, out-of-print, rare, or specialized formats.

  • Terms associated with the items found in archives are “document,” “records,” “personal papers,” “institute (or organizational) records,” “archives,” “special collections,” “manuscripts,” “oral histories,” and “rare books.”

Most are one-of-a-kind items and they provide documentation of past events from the perspective of participants and first-hand observers, witnesses, and recorders.

  • A handed down story or a compilation or interpretation is not a primary source.

In contrast to the discrete, published items collected by libraries, the objects (usually called "collections") collected by archives are complex bodies of interrelated, unique materials which share a common provenance (creator or origin).

Formats are varied, and may include photographs, audio and visual recordings, and artifacts, as well as paper-based material personal or organizational records such as correspondence, memoranda, diaries, minutes of committee and board meetings, reports, speech and lecture notes, financial records, maps, blueprints, scrapbooks, and newspaper clippings.

Archives group material collected into “collections” which are formed around the individual, organization, or institution whose activities account for their existence.

Materials are often kept in the original order given to them by their creator.

  • Archives usually keep a record of patrons through registration procedures (this is confidential information).
  • Archives require patrons to work in designated areas such as a monitored reading room.
  • Archives require patrons to place all personal belongings such as bags and purses in lockers or away from the table they are occupying.
  • Archives have strict policies against pens and food or drink around their collections.
  • Archives have “closed stacks.” This means patrons must request materials. Retrieving items may take an hour or up to several days, depending on storage. Researchers are encouraged to contact an archivist ahead of time for efficiency.
  • Archives may require patrons to wear gloves while handling some materials.
  • Most archives do not allow self-service copying.
  • You should always ask ahead of time if you’d like to bring your own scanner or digital camera.
    • Certain policies apply and most archives don’t allow personal scanners but cameras are usually welcome.
  • Archival materials rarely circulate. In other words, they don’t leave the archives department.

Due to their complexity and manner of organization, it is usually not easy to locate and access materials in archives which are related to your topic of interest without assistance.

  • You will need assistance from an archivist in most cases.

Ask about online databases to search for collection guides and inventories or digitized primary resources.

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