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MUSIC 771: Conducting Research in an Archive

Introduction to Library Research and Bibliography

What is an archive?

An archive is a collection of records created during the daily life of an organisation, company or individual. The records held in archival collections are selected for preservation because of the ongoing value of the information they contain or because they provide evidence of the conduct of affairs of their creator.

"Archive" can also refer to the institution that houses these collections.

Archival collections differ from library collections in that they contain unpublished, original and unique records. Library collections on the other hand contain published books that can be accessed through open-shelf browsing. Because of their uniqueness, archival collections can only be accessed ordering specific records that must be viewed in secure reading rooms. Also, archival collections are arranged in the order in which their creator maintained them. A library, on the other hand, arranges its collection according to subject.

Diary of E.J. Leggo

University of Melbourne Archives
Elizabeth Jane Leggo collection 1987.0163
Diary of E.J. Leggo, 1886-1913

Used with permission from Katie Wood, University of Melbourne, 2012.

Libraries and archives compared

Libraries Archives
Contain published material (e.g. books, journals). Contain unpublished material.
Material is organised by subject. Material is organised according to the original order in which they were maintained.
Find material by checking the library catalogue or browsing the shelves. Find material through lists (called finding aids). Browsing is not allowed.
Borrowing is allowed. Borrowing is not allowed.

Used with permission from Katie Wood, University of Melbourne, 2012.

WVU's West Virginia & Regional History Collection

"Located in the Charles C. Wise, Jr. Library on the WVU Downtown Campus, the WV&RHC is the largest historical archives/library relating to West Virginia in existence."

The Guide to Archives & Manuscripts provides online access to the finding aids.

West Virginia History OnView provides online access to digital photographs.

The Printed Ephemera Collection has its own online catalog.

Glossary of archival terms

Accession A group of archival documents (usually from a single provenance) transferred to an archival repository at the one time. An accession can be one of a number of accessions that form a collection, a group of records created by a single person or organisation.
Collection A collection can refer either to the entire contents of an archival repository or to a group of records created by a single person or organisation. In the latter meaning, a collection from a single person or organisation can include many different accessions. Not all collections have finding aids.
Finding aid

A finding aid is similar to a catalogue of a collection. It lists the contents of a single collection to the box or file level rather than every single item in the collection, as a library catalogue does. They are usually divided into series (see below) or groups and give box numbers in order to help locate particular material in a collection.

Manuscript An original paper document. Most archival collections consist primarily of manuscript documents. Some archival institutions (particularly those that are part of a broader library institution, such as the State Library of Victoria) call their archival collections manuscript collections.
Original order

The order in which the records were kept by the creator of the records. It is an important archival principle because the context of a document and the manner in which it was stored may tell the historian almost as much about the record as its contents.

Provenance Information about the current and previous ownership of records. "Provenance" describes the relationships between records and the organisations or individuals who created them.

The physical space in which an archival collection is held. Larger collections are usually housed in environmentally-controlled, secure sites in order to properly conserve the records. Many archival institutions have off-site repositories, so records cannot be retrieved immediately.


A number of records within a collection that are arranged together. The records will have been arranged together either during the original use and storage of the documents, or placed together by an archivists because they had a similar function (e.g. correspondence, financial ledgers, staff cards) or because of their format (e.g. photographs, cassette tapes).

Used with permission from Katie Wood, University of Melbourne, 2012.