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Introduction to Archives

Summary:

This resource discusses conducting research in a variety of archives. It also discusses a number of considerations and best practices for conducting archival research.

This resources was developed in consultation with Purdue University Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections staff. 

Contributors:Michael Maune, Nicholas Marino, and Gina Hurley
Last Edited: 2013-10-06 03:02:40

Welcome to the OWL Archival Resources Webpage! Here you will find guidelines for visiting archives and requesting/handling materials, as well as suggestions and advice for citing archival resources.

What are archives?

Archives are collections of materials and artifacts kept and preserved by organizations like universities or historical societies. Archival materials are often unpublished and are preserved for their intrinsic or research value. The contents of the collections range widely, from those related to an organization’s history, to rare books collections and special collections that might be subject-specific. For example, the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections holds copies of the school’s yearbook alongside research papers from the Psychoactive Substances Collection, as well as Amelia Earhart’s personal letters. Archival materials might be paper documents, such as personal letters, meeting minutes, concert programs and photographs, but could also be less conventional historical artifacts like letter jackets or trophies. Archival collections may have different names depending on the kinds of items they house. For example, some collections of rare books are referred to as Special Collections and may not even have "archive" in their title. For our purposes, we will simply use the term "archives."

Why should I visit the archives?

Archives offer you a unique chance to do research based upon primary source materials. Some professions or disciplines require archival research as the foundation for many projects or papers. When you choose a particular source from an archival collection, you might be the first person to look at that document since the archivist who catalogued it. Using archives will ground your research in a particular historical context and could move an existing project in new directions.

Who uses archives?

Archives are not always limited to professional academic researchers. Indeed, many universities welcome alumni or student researchers. Archives might also have materials to help with personal or genealogical research.

Where do I start?

While you should always refer to the archives website before visiting, the following pages will give an overview of how to prepare for your visit. Archives differ from libraries in several important ways, necessitating advanced planning and preparation. For example, archival materials are often very delicate and sometimes are one-of-a-kind. As a result, you cannot take them home with you. So, it is very important to get the most out of your time there.

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