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An Introduction to Archives

What is an archives?

An archives is a repository that houses materials of enduring value. Similar terms you might have heard include the singular “archive,” “manuscript repository,” or “records center.”

What’s in an archives?

Archives can contain any unit of enduring historical, research, or evidentiary value. These items include letters, memoranda, photographs, meeting minutes, publications, and organizational material.

What’s in Biddle’s archives?

The Archives of the Biddle Law Library contains a mixture of personal papers (also referred to as “manuscript collections”) and organizational records. For more information about the range of subjects covered in Biddle’s Archives, consult our Collections homepage.

How are archives organized?

Unlike traditional reference and circulating collections, archival collections usually consist of unpublished material. Furthemore, most of this material is unbound and has not been indexed (or, has been indexed erroneously) according to a standard. For these reasons, organization of archives can very greatly from collection to collection, depending on the organizational behaviors of those people who maintained the collections prior to donating them to the archives. This can result in a more intensive research process than traditional library materials. However, by preserving the organizational integrity of the creators of the collection (known in archival terminology as the principle of “original order”), it is believed that the researcher can learn as much about the creator of the collection as the informational content of the collection itself. In other words, context informs content.

How are archives housed?

Due to the likelihood of looseleaf papers, archival collections are generally contained in file folders. File folders are placed into boxes.

How are archives described?

Identifying each and every letter in an archival collection is both time-consuming and counterintuitive to the part-to-whole relationship of archival collections. Therefore, archival materials are generally grouped according to broader categories called “series.” For example, one series in a collection might be “Correspondence,” while another series in the same collection might be “Meetings,” and so forth. Series can be divided into “subseries,” too; for example, the “Correspondence” series may include the subseries “Personal” and “Professional.” Series are grouped based on anticipated relevance to the researcher.

How do I find materials in archives?

The primary method of locating relevant materials in archival collections is the collection guide, also known as the “finding aid.” Akin to a table of contents, a collection guide summarizes the content of a collection and provides information regarding the location of that content within the collection. Consider the following example as an excerpt of a collection guide:

Series 1. Correspondence, 1976-2003. Box 1
Series 2. Meetings, 1977-2002. Box 2
Series 3. Publications, 1982-2004. Box 3

In this example, the collection guide relates to the researcher the contents of the collection, the date range of those materials, and where in the collection these materials are located.

A collection guide can also provide useful biographical or historical information that helps the researcher better understand the circumstances under which these records were created and maintained.

The Archives of the Biddle Law Library has posted a number of collection guides to its website and adds them on a regular basis. Please see the Archives page for more details.

How is archival research conducted?

Archival research generally follows the process of traditional historical research methods. Requests are made to the archivist, who retrieves materials and presents them to the researcher. The researcher sits down at the table with a box and proceeds to comb through folders, identifying items of relevance. At the end of the session, the archivist and the researcher discuss photocopying requests if necessary.

Why should I conduct research at an archives?

Virtually all substantial historical scholarship has come from the use of primary, or archival, materials. While the consultation of journals, treatises, and mongraphs provides much useful information, those organs are essentially interpretations of the historical record. Any researcher who is serious about making a substantial contribution to the realm of academic scholarship should consider consulting archival materials in an effort to present a fresh interpretation of past events.