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Introduction to Archival Research

What Are Archives?

According to the Society of American Archivists, archives are "the non-current records of individuals, groups, institutions, and governments that contain information of enduring value." (SAA, 2015). This means that archival records are:

  • Primary sources, not secondary sources
  • Created by individuals, groups, and institutions in the course of their work
  • Often unpublished and not intended for publication
  • "Raw" and uninterpreted
  • Not the current records of an institution or individual
  • Selected for preservation because of "enduring value"

How are Archival Collections Organized?

Archival collections are arranged according to two basic principles: Provenance and Original Order.

  • Provenance dictates that records with different origins must be kept separate from each other. This means that records from one individual or institution should be kept separate from the records of a second individual or institution, even if their subject matter is the same.
  • Original Order means that archival records should be maintained in the order established by the creator of the records, not in an order established by the archives.

Both of these concepts ensure that archival records preserve context as well as content.

Provenance and Original Order mean that archival collections are organized very differently from library collections. Library collections are usually arranged by subject, with all the information on one subject grouped together. In archival collections, information on a particular subject may be scattered across many different collections.

Archival records are also indexed or cataloged at the box or folder level, not the item level. This means that archival catalogs and finding aids will not tell you the content of or even existence of every piece of paper in the collection. They will only give you a general idea of what is in each box or folder. The rest is for you to discover!