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Archives: Using Archives collections

Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections

What is "provenance"?

In archives, Provenance is the "biography" of a collection. It includes information of when the collection came into being, who created it, and its ownership history. 

What is a Finding Aid?

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

How are archives different from libraries?

Library books are organized on the shelves by subject and discoverable through a catalog record. Archives collections are organized by provenance (their origins) and then described in a finding aid. A typical archival collection includes multiple boxes containing folders of papers, photographs, or printed materials. 

A book or journal 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. 

You can borrow library materials and take them home with you. Archives materials must be used in the archives reading room only. 

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?

The archivist musat processes a collection before making it available for researchers to use. 

  1. 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. 
  2. An inventory of the contents is created.
    • Archivists preserve the original order of a collection as much as possible, but a very disorganized collection is reorganized in whatever way makes the most sense. 
  3. The collection is rehoused in clean, archival folders and boxes and placed on shelves. 
  4. finding aid for researchers is written that describes the collection.