Answered By: History, Philosophy and Newspaper Library
Last Updated: Feb 20, 2017     Views: 23

In order to understand how to access archival materials, it's important to understand what an archive is (and what it is not). People increasingly use the word "archive" imprecisely, but both historians and librarians mean something very specific by it:

An accumulation of original records assembled in the course of the activities of a person or persons, or of a public or private organization; or such records from a number of different sources; and kept together to ensure their preservation and to promote their use.1

In popular usage, the word "archive" is often used to denominate a myriad of things other than "archives". For example the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive is actually a periodical collection, not an archive. The Prairie Archives is a bookstore, not an archive. The Dalkey Archive is a book publisher, not an archive. The Mirrorshades Postmodern Archive is a website, not an archive.

A digital archive would be an archive of digital records, either "digital surrogates" of records that were originally produced on paper, or "born digital records". Obviously, as people and organizations conduct more and more of their official and personal business on computers, the importance of "born digital records" will increase. Most historians, however, work with archival records that were originally created on paper or some other analog medium. Historians also increasingly work with digital surrogates as well.

Due to the enormous number of archival records that have been produced and saved (the University of Illinois Archives holds over 25 thousand cubic feet of records; the archive of United States federal government holds over 25 million cubic feet of records), the proportion of archival records that have been digitized will remain miniscule for a long, long time.

Typically, an archive might digitize a selection of records that are most frequently used or requested, or that are deemed to have especially significant historical value. A commercial publisher, like ProQuest, might digitize an entire archive if they believe the demand for access to those records is great enough to create a market for digital surrogates. An example of such an archive is the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress.

Many important archival collections are also available to you on microfilm. Both archives and commercial publishers were making "microform surrogates" of archival collections long before anybody even dreamt of digital surrogates!

So how does one access archival materials? A good strategy is to identify what person or organization produced the records you want to access, or what person or organization is likely to have produced such records. Archives are organized by provenance of the records, so the key piece of information is the identity of the person or organization that either created the records, or that owned the records.

You can find archival collections using the following tools (described elsewhere in this giude):

Not all of the archival sources you find using the first two tools will be digitized.


1. Ray Prytherch, Harrod's Librarians' Glossary and Reference Book, 10th ed. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 29-30.

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