Archival collections are unique and one of a kind. They are an aggregate of material collected by or about people, topics, events, and organizations. They can be papers, letters, photographs, calendars, diaries, business records, music, emails, and everything in between. The beautiful thing about archives and archival collections is that their meaning and value comes from creators and researchers like you and me.
An archival collection can be an organization’s records like the Women’s World Banking Records or the Chicano Press Organization Records. They can be personal and professional papers of historical figures like the George F. Kennan Papers and the Toni Morrison Papers. One of the amazing things about archives is that it can also be a place to hold the stories of everyday people like the Corson Family Collection, the Chalmers W. Alexander Letters, and the LGBTQIA Oral History Project.
So whether a collection is housed at an institution like Princeton University Library Special Collections, a church basement, a community center, or in a family scrapbook they are all important.
“Meaning in archival records is revealed through their contexts as much as through their contents.” -Describing Archives: a content standard (DACS)
Even though archival research can seem intimidating at first, you have nothing to fear! Archives keep their collections within the building in order to preserve them so future generations can explore them. Though you can’t check out archival material like you would a book, you can still view the archival material in a reading room inside the archives building. These rooms generally only allow pencils, laptops, tablets, phones, and cameras. You can see if the archive has their guidelines online before visiting. In order to prevent accidents, you’ll probably be asked to leave food, drinks, and pens outside of the reading room. If you are researching at PUL, you can read our reading room guidelines in preparation for your visit.
Most archives have tools to help researchers locate material. The main tool is called a finding aid. Just like you have to use the library catalog to find books and databases to find scholarly articles, you use finding aids to find specific boxes and folders to view in the reading room (or directly online if available). PUL has a finding aids site that holds the descriptions of all the collections we steward. We also have wonderful staff members who can assist you in your research and future visits to our reading rooms. Feel free to use the Ask Us! form at any time.
A finding aid is a guide to the archival collections an institution stewards. Think of it as a table of contents to a book. Archivists make data about collections available so researchers can search, find, and access material.
There are some terms archivists use that may be useful for you to know: