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Rhoads Memorial Archives: Visiting Archives

Visiting an Archive

Visiting Archives

General Rules

Because nearly all items in an archival repository are unique and irreplaceable, the rules for their use vary greatly from those to which most people are accustomed. American public and research libraries open much of their collections to researchers, their lending policies are very liberal, photocopying is self-serve and unmonitored, and hours are long and flexible. However, in an archives or manuscript repository:

  • Shelves are closed to researchers.
  • Items cannot be loaned out.
  • Photocopies are generally made by archives staff.
  • Only pencils are permitted.


Differences Between Libraries and Archives

Libraries and archives have basic common functions: they are information repositories which provide many services to their users, and the purpose of their existence is to make their resources available to those who need them. Differences arise in the methods used to carry out their mandates, and these methods vary because libraries and archives hold very different types of material. Libraries collect published items, or secondary sources, which are usually produced in large quantities and dispersed to libraries and bookstores around the country and world. If a book or periodical or newspaper is lost, damaged, or stolen, there is a very strong likelihood that it may be replaced. Even if the item is not readily available at a reasonable price through purchase, copyright law permits copying from another holder.

On the other hand, archival repositories collect original unpublished material, or primary sources, and also hold the record copy of printed material from their institutions. This original material is unique and irreplaceable, and vulnerable to improper handling. If an archival document or manuscript is damaged, lost, or stolen, the information it contains is lost forever. Therefore, archives have developed stringent and inflexible rules to protect their unique and tenuous holdings from theft, damage, loss, or destruction.


How Are Archival Materials Arranged?

Over the years, libraries have developed systems for arranging their holdings so that they are grouped by subject. Access is relatively easy, through a printed or online catalog, through CD-ROMs, or simply by browsing the shelves. Standards such as the Dewey and Library of Congress classification systems have been developed and accepted, and are conscientiously updated and maintained. Because their holdings are not unique, libraries have been able to cooperate and exchange information about their resources through shared cataloging and interlibrary loans.

Archivists, however, have historically refused to acknowledge the need for or benefits of standards for description and access. Arising from the history and not the library profession, archivists traditionally evinced an insular and uncooperative attitude toward access to the collections they oversaw. They felt that unique material could only be described using methods uniquely adapted to each collection. Although this attitude is changing dramatically, archivists are struggling to recover lost time and squandered opportunities for increased standardization and access. They are also hampered by the unique and varied nature of their holdings, and the overwhelming size of their uncataloged and undescribed collections.

Archivists have managed to agree on some principles and have begun the task of making their collections known to the public and the intellectual content they contain available for research.

The two major principles to which archivists adhere are provenance and original order. Provenance is defined as "origin, derivation, or source." Archival holdings are arranged by creator: the person, family, government agency, or corporate body that created or accumulated the material in the course of that creator’s activities or functions. Archives refer to records created during the course of business by a corporate body, such as a company, college, government agency, or association. Manuscripts or personal papers are created by individuals or families in their private lives. Because of the principle of provenance, the archives or manuscripts created by one organization or individual are not mixed or combined with those of another. This practice is also referred to as respect des fonds.

Archivists also try to preserve the original order of the collection as it has been accumulated and maintained by its creator. This order had some use or purpose to the collection’s creator, and meaning can often be abstracted by later researchers from evidence provided by context and development of the record. Many institutional records arrive at the archives in obvious order, and the archivist will maintain that order unless it is too impractical to be useful or another arrangement provides far greater access to the researcher. Personal papers, however, often arrive in no discernible order and are in such disarray that order must be imposed by the archivist.


Preparing for Research in Primary Sources

Before visiting an archives, the researcher should conduct thorough background research, and determine which repositories hold relevant collections. The library should always be the first stop. A thorough search of secondary material from books, periodicals, newspapers, encyclopedias and other reference sources, and online databases will provide a grasp of the subject matter, and reveal areas which have already been well covered, avenues which are still open to study, and clues to the location of primary source material. Secondary sources help to refine the research topic and in the assessment of primary sources. Interviews, footnotes, bibliographies, and other sources cited in secondary material will point the researcher to relevant archival and manuscript collections, and the names, places, events, and dates uncovered from these readings will provide access points to their contents.

During this phase, the researcher should compile a list of collections that may be consulted, and note the repository in which they are held. Advice from colleagues and others who have conducted research in the same general area should also be obtained. They often have invaluable insights and recommendations to offer.

The researcher should not rely only on web-based search engines. While they occasionally turn up a valuable resource, they rarely find relevant information. Further, the holdings of many archives have not been indexed to a sufficient level, and many relevant sources are buried deep in the search results or do not appear at all.


Sources to Consult

Some directories and guides have been published during the past half century in book form or are available in an online service or CD-ROM. However, searching these online sources may have to be conducted for a fee or through a library that has purchased rights to access the database.

Large research libraries should have access to some or all of these resources:

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