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Introduction to Archival Research: Archives Basics

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On this page, you can find:


What is an archives?

  • The Society of American Archivists defines archives 12 different ways. Archives can refer to a collection of records, as well as the institution or organization responsible for collecting and organizing physical and digital materials.

What is a repository?

  • a space used to store items of continuing value, particularly records; a storehouse

Source: SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology

What is a finding aid?

  • A finding aid is "a description that typically consists of contextual and structural information about an archival resource." A finding aid might include acquisition and processing notes, biographical notes, provenance, collection inventory, etc.

At MIT, our finding aids can be found via MIT ArchivesSpace and often include information about boxes and folders within a collection, but usually not the individual items.

Source: SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology

What is a collection?

  • A collection is "a set of archival or (more commonly) manuscript materials." Examples of collections include: an individual's personal papers, a grouping of a president's records, the files of an organization, etc.

Source: SAA Dictionary of Archives Terminology

What is archival research?

  • Simply put, archival research is primary source research using materials held in a repository such as an archive, a special collections library, or another organization.

For additional terminology related to archives and archival research, see the Using MIT ArchivesSpace LibGuide.

Things to Know Before You Begin

Archival research can be convoluted. Here are some things to know before you jump into research in archives, particularly at MIT:

  1. Not everything is digitized. Many materials in MIT's collections are available online, but much more is stored in a repository and can be requested for onsite access.
  2. A finding aid won't always contain a description of every item in a collection. If archivists were to describe every individual item in a collection, very little would be published!
  3. Library staff are unable to research for you. We can point you to various resources and potential sources of interest, but ultimately you will need to do your own research.
  4. Archival holdings rarely circulate. Many of the materials housed in repositories such as the Department of Distinctive Collections are particularly rare, fragile, or otherwise distinctive and cannot travel. In the Department of Distinctive Collections, we offer in-person research appointments in our reading room, remote reference sessions depending on staff availability, and fee-based imaging services.
  5. Archival research can be challenging  and also incredibly rewarding. Sometimes a collection doesn't have the result you wanted, but you can stumble upon much more than you were originally looking for. 

Collection Highlight: Electro-Chemical Laboratory during World War I

A black-and-white photo of two people working in a lab, with a large machines and meters in the center of the image.

Photo of the Electro-Chemical Laboratory during World War I (Technology War Record, 9).

Ask Distinctive Collections!