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HST 201: Methods of Historical Research (Guzik)

What Are Archives?

The word "archive" or "archives" can used in many ways. The two we primarily consider here are: 

  • A building where historical records are kept, whether a library, historical society, or government repository
  • A collection of historical records that are preserved for their value as historical evidence

An archive generally contains collections of original, historical documents, photographs, media, and other materials from individual people or organizations. Items within archival collections can include: 

letters and correspondence architectural drawings photographs, slides, and negatives
financial and business records maps audiovisual media
published books and periodicals posters objects, artifacts, and textiles
original research data artwork digital files

Archival material can also be referred to as: 

  • Records - referring to documentation created in the course of regular work or functioning of an organization
  • Personal papers - referring to material created by an individual in the course of their life and work, including correspondence, diaries, and original writing
  • Manuscripts - often referring to hand-written material or writing drafts that were never published
  • Special collections - Though often referring to collections of rare books, some institutions hold archival material within a broader category of "Special Collections"

Each archival institution holds a number of separate archival collections. Each archival collection is usually: 

  • Acquired from a single original creator - like the personal papers of an artist or politician, or the records of an organization or student group. 
  • Stored together with other material from the same person or organization from which it was acquired.
  • Comprised of a variety of different types of material - including paper records, photographs, media, maps, or other documents. 

Unlike many library resources, archival material is not usually arranged according to subject or material type.

Provenance, a fundamental principle of archival practice, is intended to maintain the original historical context in which material was created. This is accomplished by keeping material together according to the original source of the collection. 

Both libraries and archives preserve materials and make them available for research use. However, there are some important differences between them: 

  • Libraries hold copies of published books and periodicals. Most archival materials are rare, unique, or original. They often come directly from the original creators, created in the process of their work or personal lives. Because most archival materials were not created to be published or widely circulated, there may be no other copies anywhere else in the world. 
  • Usually in a library, you are able to browse the shelves and check out material to take home with you. Archival materials - due to their age and rarity - are often kept in closed, climate-controlled storage and do not circulate. Archival collections are made accessible only in supervised "Reading Rooms," to ensure long-term preservation. 

See the "Use the Archives" tab above to learn more about what to expect when using the Reading Room.

Credit: From The University of Colorado Boulder's GU University Libraries' Guide: Introduction to Archival Research

Because archives contain primary source evidence of historical events, people, periods, and areas, there are many different ways they are used by archives patrons:  

  • Academic researchers and students use primary source evidence to support their arguments in books, articles, and papers. In addition to history students, archival material is useful to researchers in media studies, literature, social sciences, and many other fields. 
  • Families often consult archives for genealogical research, to learn more about their ancestors and family history. 
  • University alumni and community members visit archives to revisit memories from their own lives.
  • Artists and creative writers draw on archival material to develop projects and incorporate historic images, media, and writing into new creative works.
  • Businesses draw on archival material for new marketing and messaging.
  • Advocates and lawyers use archival material as evidence in legal arguments, to ensure accountability of elected officials, and to advocate for social and political causes.
  • Local planners and architects consult archival maps, blueprints, and other documentation when determining property ownership and planning new constructions

Many archives are open to all users, whether their research is academic, genealogical, or personal. However, some archives are restricted only to scholarly researchers and may require a university affiliation or summary of research project to access. Contact the institution you would like to visit to learn about their access policies. 

Credit: From The University of Colorado Boulder's GU University Libraries' Guide: Introduction to Archival Research

Archival collections may be found in a number of different types of institutions: 

College and university archives  College and university archives usually include institutional history, as well as collections on local and area history and collections on subjects that are specialties of faculty members on campus. College and university archives are often accessible to public users, regardless of their affiliation with the university.
Corporate archives  Found in businesses and corporations, documenting business history and policies. Corporate archives are usually only accessible to people within the company. 
Government archives
Hold official materials from local, state, and national government bodies. Government archives are accessible to the public to facilitate accountability and advocacy.
Tribal libraries, archives, and museums Many indigenous communities hold material documenting their own local cultural and governmental histories. Tribal archives may be open to public researchers, though some material may only be accessible to tribal members, tribal elders, or other specifically designated groups, depending on their cultural protocols for knowledge sharing.
Historical societies Historical societies are usually non-governmental, non-profit organizations that collect material on a particular region, historical period, or subject. Archival collections at historical societies are often accessible to public researchers.
Museums Unlike most research archives, museums generally focus on preservation and exhibition of artifacts, rather than storage of records for research use. Some museums do allow research access to closed collection material that is not on display.
Religious archives Records held within religious organizations. Religious archives may or may not be open for public use, depending on the policies of the organization or institution.
Community archives Some archival materials are collected, preserved, and overseen by small, grass-roots organizations. These archives often focus on regional history and local communities, like racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQ people, or immigrant communities. Community archives are often created by people from historically marginalized groups, who do not feel their histories represented or supported by traditional government and university institutions. 
Digital archives Most online digital collections are created and overseen by the types of organizations listed above, displaying material scanned or digitzed from their broader physical collection holdings. Some digital archives are founded and directed solely as internet repositories of digital material, available only online.


In addition to collecting new material and helping students and researchers to locate materials, much work done by archivists involves preparing archival collections for researcher use. This is called archival processing. It involves three things: 

  1. "Rehousing" - Because archival collections are acquired directly from their original users, they are not always stored in ways that are good for physical preservation. Archivists work to put collection materials into new boxes, folders, photograph sleeves, and other archival containers, to better preserve material in the long term. 
  2. Arrangement - Archivists arrange collection material into sections - what we call "series" - to help researchers understand and identify what types of material are contained in the collection. To preserve historical context, our standard is to retain archival records in the original order they were kept by their creator. In this way, the series we choose reflects the original context of the collection as best as possible.
  3. Description - Because archival collections do not come with indexes or tables of contents, archivists work to create a guide, called a "Finding Aid," that describes the arrangement of series, boxes, and folders within the collection. The Finding Aid is like a roadmap that helps a researcher navigate a collection. See the "Finding Aid" tab above to learn more about using an archival Finding Aid.

    Credit: From The University of Colorado Boulder's GU University Libraries' Guide: Introduction to Archival Research

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