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Archives - What they are and how to use them.

Archives: "Raw Materials" arranged for Researchers

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Even though archives are often thought of as raw and unmediated materials, a lot actually goes into arranging them for researchers. Understanding how archives are arranged will help you to be a more efficient researcher.

How are Archives Arranged?

  • Archives are grouped together into Collections based on who created them, not their topic. For example, even though Goucher College might have many scrapbooks of life on Goucher's downtown campus, we would not put them all together into a collection called "Early Scrapbooks." Instead, we would make one collection per creator. Archivists call this organizational principle Provenance.
  • Each Collection is kept in its original order whenever possible. For example, when Goucher College gets the records of an on-campus club, we do not rearrange them. We keep them in the same order that the club had them in, because the arrangement itself might reveal valuable information about how the club worked. Archivists call this organizational principle Original order.
  • When original order doesn't make sense, a Collection is sorted into types of material. For example, if Goucher got the personal papers of a faculty member and they weren't in any particular order to begin with, we would put together the correspondence, drafts, photographs, etc. into groupings called "Series." The items within these Series might be further sorted into alphabetical and/or chronological order.


Example of a typical arrangement:

Collection Number 1. The Professor John Smith Papers. Includes:

Series 1. Writings. Arranged alphabetically by title.
Series 2. Correspondence. Arranged alphabetically names.
Series 3. Photographs. Arranged alphabetically by topic.

Descriptions of Archives

Large archival collections are usually described in Finding Aids. A finding aid describes where an archival collection came from, gives a synoposis of the creator's history, and provides an inventory of the collection. This is an example of the "Collection Contents" section of a Finding Aid:


Small archival collections may not have finding aids. They may only be described in basic inventories. Most of Goucher's archival sources are described in a simple list. Note that again, there is only very basic information about the collections.


For more information on archival theory and practices, see this Practical Guide for Researchers from the National Library & Archives of Canada.

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