Archives FAQs

What is the difference between an Archives and a Library?

Libraries contain books and other printed materials whereas Archives contain records. Books are generally considered "secondary sources" which means that the information the books contain was derived from a variety of sources and interpreted by the authors. Archival records, on the other hand, most often consist of "primary sources." Unlike books, which are written after the events they describe, archival records are created during the course of an event as part of a person's or organization's regular activity. For example, a student studying the Civil War might wish to read the letters written by a soldier during the war. These letters would be considered "primary sources" whereas the textbook written about the Civil War would be a "secondary source."

Libraries are also generally considered collecting bodies, which means that they do not derive their materials from a particular institution but rather from anyone and anywhere. Archives, on the other hand, tend to be receiving institutions. Archives are generally established to preserve the archival materials produced by the organizations or institutions they serve.

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How do I find out which library or archives has the records I'm looking for?

There is not one central place to look to find out where specific collections are located. But there are a couple of good places to start. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, administered by the Library of Congress and available online contains brief descriptions of collections from repositories all over the country. Another good place to check is OCLC, traditionally an online union catalog of books in libraries around the world, but increasingly containing records of archival and manuscript collections. Ask your local librarian about searching OCLC. Nearly all libraries have the capability to search this database. Another database, usually available only at large research libraries, is ArchivesUSA, published by Chadwyk-Healey, which lists not only the names and locations of collections, but often includes detailed descriptions ("finding aids") of the materials they contain.

But even after you've checked all these places, you can't be sure you've covered everything. Many archives and manuscript repositories do not have their collections listed online. In that case, the best thing you can do is guess, but you can make it an educated guess. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Every state has a state archives which holds the official records of the state government. These include not only legislative records, but often things like census records, birth and death certificates, immigration records, and records of military service.
  • Almost every college or university has an archives which contains yearbooks, university histories, papers of faculty members and university presidents, and, though they may be protected by privacy laws, student records.
  • Most states have historical societies or historical organizations located within larger institutions (such as the state university). These often contain histories of the state and manuscript collections of prominent people from the state.
  • Public libraries often contain rare book and manuscript collections with information about local history and residents. These can be the best places to begin.

Most libraries and archives have web sites, which allow you to learn a little bit about the organization and give you an address to write to the reference staff. Whatever you do, be patient and be prepared to be referred from one organization to the next. This is an inexact science, but most of the people you encounter along the way will be friendly and willing to help.

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How can I preserve my organization's records or my family papers?

Old papers and photographs have many enemies. Heat, humidity, mold, insects, acidity and neglect contribute to the decay of papers and photographs. There are, however, many steps you can take to ensure that your important papers will be around for centuries to come. The simplest and most important thing is to make sure they are in a cool, dry place. Treat them almost as carefully as you would other perishable items. Basements and attics - the traditional homes for neglected belongings - are subject to drastic changes in temperature and excessive humidity. Both are extremely harmful to paper.

In addition to the location of your documents, the means of storage is also important. Do not use tape, glue, or staples on your old papers - the best place to store them is in acid-free folders. Likewise, many photograph albums contain chemicals that can be harmful to your pictures. You can buy preservation-quality photo albums, folders, and other materials from several catalogs.

Sometimes, however, the problem is not with the storage but with the materials themselves. Much of the paper made from the mid-19th through most of the 20th century was highly acidic and quickly became brittle. There is, unfortunately, no easy way to reverse the process of decay. But remember that even if the paper can't be saved, the information can. Libraries may opt to make microfilm or digital copies of fragile materials, but those processes can be expensive or impractical for individuals. Simply photocopying the fragile or decaying documents onto acid-free paper is an excellent way to preserve important information.

You may also wish to consider donating your organization's records or family papers to an archives where they will be organized and preserved. Guidelines for donating your family papers or organization's records are available from the Society of American Archivists.

Archivists from the New England Archivists Speakers Bureau are also available to speak to your organization or group about ways to preserve your records and document your community. If you are interested in having a speaker come to your organization, please contact Emily R. Novak by phone at (617) 495-8532 or email: enovak@radcliffe.edu.

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How do I donate my family papers to a repository?

Letters, diaries, photos, and other material and memorabilia collected over time holds vital and unique information regarding your life and/or the history of your family. These items are obviously important to you and your family, however, they may also be important to your community, state, or nation. Your family may not have attained a high degree of fame, nonetheless, they have contributed to the heritage of a certain place and time. When you donate your personal or family papers to a manuscript repository or historical collection, your family history becomes a part of your community's collective memory.

Guidelines for donating your family papers are available from the Society of American Archivists or for information on local repositories where family papers may be donated, contact New England Archivists.

How do I donate my organization's records to a repository?

Original letters, minutes, reports, photographs, publications and other documents provide unique testimony to the achievements of your organization. Such materials are also extremely valuable for administrative, legal, fiscal and public relations purposes. Your organization's history is important to your community, too. By donating your organization's records to an archival repository, you will assure that its history and heritage will be part of your community's collective memory forever.

Guidelines for donating your organization's records are available from the Society of American Archivists or for information on local repositories where your organization's records may be donated, contact New England Archivists.

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How can I find out how much my historical books/documents/artifacts are worth?

There is no sure way to determine the value of historical documents, books, or artifacts. Like any unique materials, they are worth whatever somebody is willing to pay. The best way to get an idea of the value of historical materials is to look at antique shops, bookstores, auction catalogs - anywhere these types of things are sold - and see what people are paying for similar items. Libraries and archives are not able to provide estimates of monetary value for historical materials. However, many libraries, archives, used bookstores, and museums can provide suggestions for locating independent appraisers who will assess artifacts and give a rough idea of the value (like the professionals on Antiques Roadshow). You should be aware that appraisers do charge for their services and, on some occasions, the appraiser's fee may even be higher than the estimated value of the item.

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Would you like to hire an archivist?

Archivists are trained professionals who decide what records to maintain and preserve. In doing so, they organize records according to their creator's original arrangement or a similar hierarchical scheme, and describe them to facilitate retrieval for research. Employment as a professional archivist usually requires a graduate education in library science or history with a concentration in archives management. In addition, most archivists entering the professional arena should gain a "hands-on" experience through internships or work in an archival repository, historical or manuscript collection, or museum.

When hiring an archivist for your organization, it is important to make sure your candidates have the proper educational background and experience. In addition to these elements, an archivist should have the research and analytical ability to understand the content of records, as well as the context in which they were created. An archivist should be able to decipher deteriorated or poor quality printed materials, manuscripts, and photographic media. A background in preservation management is also important since your archivist is responsible for properly caring for your records. Lastly, you should seek a candidate with excellent writing skills and a comfort with computers, as the ability to work with electronic records and databases has become increasingly important.

If you are interested in hiring an archivist for your organization, please contact NEA to place an advertisement or to gain more information on how best to go about hiring archivist for your records collection.

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