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Archives: Using Archives collections

Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections

What is provenance?

Provenance is the chronology of creation, ownership, and location of a particular object or collection. To determine provenance, you ask the questions: Who created this? When and why? Who has owned it since its creation? Provenance helps establish a collection's context and may help determine its authenticity and historical value. 

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a document that describes an archival collection for researchers. It usually includes an abstract of a collection's contents, a history of the collection, and an inventory of materials in the collection. A finding aid is often available online, but some archives rely on paper finding aids. WSU's finding aids are available online as PDFs on the Archives collections page. 

How are archives different from libraries?

The ways in which archives are organized make them different from library collections. 

  • A library collects and catalogs individual books and journals and then organizes them by subject. Archives include entire collections of materials which are organized by provenance and described in a document called a finding aid. A typical archival collection may include multiple boxes containing folders of papers, photographs, or printed materials. 
  • Unlike a book or journal article which is carefully organized and edited, an archival collection may be idiosyncratic. It may be the product of many different people gathering materials at various times. There may be gaps in information or unexpected surprises. 
  • Libraries lend materials you can take home with you. Archives materials must be used in the archives reading room. 

Why use archives for research?

Archival collections are rich in primary sources. These may include correspondence, photographs, documents describing the functions of a particular institution, unedited manuscripts, ledger books of businesses, and objects or publications that are historically significant to a person or place. For historians in particular, archives are essential "raw materials" for scholarly research and writing. 

What is archival processing?

Before an archival collection can be used by researchers, it must first be processed. 

  • The archivist accessions the collection--formally acquires it from a donor through signed paperwork. 
    • While physical materials will become the property of the archives, copyright may remain with a donor. 
  • An inventory of the collection's contents is created.
    • Archivists preserve the original order of a collection as much as possible, but very disorganized collections are reorganized at this stage. 
  • Materials are then rehoused in clean, archival folders and boxes and then labeled and placed on shelves. 
    • The Archives keeps an inventory of all materials as well as their shelf locations. 
  • A finding aid is written that describes the collection for researchers.