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Archives: Using Archives collections

Worcester State University Archives and Special Collections


In archives, Provenance is the "biography" of a collection. It includes information of how and when the collection was created, who created it, and who has owned it over time. 

The 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. 

Archival Processing

The archivist must 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. 

How archives and libraries are different

Library books are organized on shelves by subject and discoverable through a catalog record. Archives collections are organized by provenance (their origin) and then described in a finding aid

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. A typical archival collection includes multiple boxes of papers, photographs, or printed materials. 

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

How researchers use archives

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. 

Archival training

Most professional archivists have a MLIS  (Masters Degree in Library and Information Science) with a concentration in archives.

Like many professionals, archivists also attend workshops or classes throughout their careers to maintain skills and knowledge. Below are examples of coursework from selected MLIS/Archives programs. 

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) provides a Directory of Archival Education on their website: 

Local and Regional Archives and Libraries

Below are links to selected regional special collections and archives institutions. Many colleges and universities also maintain historical collections: the The University of Rhode Island maintains a page with links to many of these. 

The American Antiquarian Society maintains a collection of national significance. Included are local and regional history,  genealogy, and records of institutions and businesses. 

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Archives holds vital and government records dating back to the colonial era. The website features extensive guides and finding aids to the collections.  The State Library website features digitized documents from various state agencies. 

City of Boston Archives includes municipal government records from Boston. 

Old Sturbridge Village Research Library holds volumes related to rural life in Massachusetts. The village also includes historical buildings fitting out with period furniture. 

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem includes decorative arts collections as well as a manuscript collection that covers local history from the colonial era as well as world cultures. 

The Worcester Historical Museum focuses on Worcester City's history. Library contains many local history and genealogy resources.