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Archival research basics

In This Guide

What are archives?

 Archives contain unique, unpublished materials, like photographs, letters, diaries, and business records that document the day-to-day activities of an individual, family, or organization.

 

What do archives do?

Archives may contain different types of materials and serve different groups of people, but there are a few functions common across archives:

  • Collecting: Archives collect materials that document specific regions, subjects, time periods, or organizations.
  • Preservation: Archives take steps to ensure that the materials in their collections remain in stable condition over time. Types of preservation activities vary based on the types of material an archives holds and the resources at the archives' disposal.
  • Description: Archives describe their collections so that their users and staff can find them. Types of description, who can see the descriptions, and where the descriptions can be found vary from archive to archive.
  • Access: Archives generally provide access to their collections. Some archives may have public access, others may limit access.

What do archives collect?

Archives collect a variety of different document types and formats. Depending on the archives' collecting mission some of these types may be more prevalent in their collections than others. The lists below provide examples of some of the types of documents and formats that you might encounter during archival research.

Document types:

Formats:

  • Correspondence
Paper
  • Diaries

Photographs (negatives, slides, prints)

  • Interviews
Digital files
  • Speeches

Moving images (film, video tape, digital)

  • Maps
Audio (records, tapes, digital)
  • Building plans
Physical objects
  • Promotional flyers
Microform (microfiche and microfilm)
  • Images
 
  • Meeting minutes
 
  • Bylaws
 
  • Reports
 
  • Research notes
 
  • Social media posts
 
  • Protest signs
 

 

Types of archives

Different types of archives collect different types of material and serve different groups of people. Some archives function as more than one type. Examples of different types of archives include:

  • Government archives collect the records created by a particular government, including state, local, or federal governments. They are usually required by law to collect certain types of records.
  • Corporate archives collect the records of a single business or organization. Access to corporate archives may be restricted to users within the parent company or organization.
  • University archives collect the records of a university, including administrative records, records of student organizations, and sometimes papers of faculty members or alumni. University archives often have a teaching mission and provide archival instruction to students.
  • Historical societies generally focus on the history of a specific geographic location, such as a town or state, and collect various types of records, including papers of residents and records of local businesses and organizations.
  • Museum archives often contain the records of the museum, including exhibit materials and administrative records, as well as collections pertaining to the museum's collecting focus, such as the papers of artists.
  • Religious archives contain the records of a particular religion, denomination, or place of worship. Religious archives may be open for public research or limit access to members of the faith.
  • Tribal archives hold the records of particular indigenous groups, and may contain administrative records and cultural information. Access tribal archives may be partially or entirely limited to members of the group due to the presence of sensitive cultural information.
  • Format-specific archives collect materials in a specific format, such as photographs or film. An example of this is Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association, which collects Alaskan moving image and audio materials.
  • Special collections contain materials related to individuals, families, and organizations deemed to be of historic value, often focusing on a specific topic or geographic location. Many, but not all, special collections are housed at universities as part of a library and/or operate in tandem with the university's archives. For example the UAA/APU Consortium Library Archives and Special Collections houses both university records and special collections relating to the life and history of Alaska.

How are archives different from libraries?

Archives and libraries share many of the same functions, like collecting and providing access to sources of information. However, the types of materials that libraries and archives collect differ, which translates to differences in how they describe and provide access to them. Below are some of the main differences between archives and libraries.

  • Archives typically collect and provide access to unique and unpublished materials, such as letters, drafts of manuscripts, home movies, and meeting minutes.

Libraries collect published items, like newspapers, books, and commercially available movies.

  • Archives collect, describe, and provide access to collections of material, usually grouped together by creator. For example, the Benjamin B. Talley papers, the Victor Rivers family papers, or the Wildflower Garden Club records.

Libraries collect, describe, and provide access mostly to individual items like books, maps, or music scores. Newspapers, journals, and other serial publications may be described more collectively (like Anchorage Daily News and not specific articles within).

  • Archival collections are generally stored in non-public areas and arranged on the shelves in the most space-efficient manner, rather than in a particular order. This is because archives often contain the only copies of items, often consist of many documents in a box that may not be individually described, and require a greater level of security, so shelf browsing is usually not allowed. Archival collections often reflect the diverse interest and activities of their creators, so it generally does not make sense to classify and arrange them by assigning them a single subject.

Library collections are usually arranged on browsable shelves according to a classification scheme based on subject.

  • Archives typically require their collections to be used onsite for security reasons.

Libraries often let users check out items and take them home.

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