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In the research rooms we often see a lot of frustration from first-time visitors when their expectations don’t line up with the setup here at NARA.  They want to know why we don’t have multiple copies of popular records, or why it’s so hard to find the specific document they’re interested in, or why there are so many rules about how to handle documents. This frustration often stems from a lack of understanding about the differences between a library (something with which almost all of us have experience) and an archives (which may be less familiar). So, what are the differences between the two?


The greatest underlying differences are in the types of materials libraries and archives collect, and the way they provide access to those materials.


A library collects information resources (like books, periodicals, electronic databases, and multimedia items), and organizes them so that patrons can easily find and use them. Libraries circulate materials, often have similar collections across institutions, usually collect multiple copies of popular items, and can replace worn out items relatively easily.


An archives also collects information resources, but they are usually primary source materials that are unpublished and almost always unique, meaning that they cannot be easily replaced if damaged, lost, or destroyed. Primary sources are the original items we study to learn about our history, such as photographs of people or events, correspondents between individuals, or the records of a government agency.


Because each archives collects unique materials, preserving those materials is important. Handling guidelines, such as wearing gloves when touching photographs, using support pillows under bound volumes, and not using flash when taking photographs, all help preserve materials for future use.


Finding and accessing a specific item in an archives is especially tricky. In a library, it is quite easy to search the catalog for a book by its title, discover its location in the library, and then go to the shelf to retrieve it. In an archives, materials are held in closed stacks, meaning researchers cannot find and retrieve them independently.


Archival collections are usually established by grouping together all the materials created by a particular person, family, or organization. These groupings, called “record groups” here at NARA, can contain hundreds of boxes, thousands of reels of film, or just a few volumes. Because most collections contain too much material for each item to be individually described in the online catalog, each collections is described as a single entity, with an outline specifying the different sections of the collection (called “series”) and any subjects or individuals that are noteworthy in the collection.


Here at the National Archives, the National Archives Catalog and analog finding aids describe the organizational system of record groups and series, and our reference staff works hard to give researchers as much information as possible to help guide their work. Are you gearing up for a research visit? Check out our website for more information on navigating our collections.

Stories exist in all forms for whatever purposes we strive to achieve. Narratives about our families, friends, careers, entertainment, and whether it's all real or a product of our imagination, drives us to uncover and understand more about ourselves.  History is a story as well; rich narratives all intertwined to form a complex portrait of people's ancestry and their circumstances.  One form of history that can intimately connect us with people and how they interpreted their situations is oral history.  The stories passed down through oral tradition and preserved for future generations provide a grass roots approach in understanding how events and people's actions directly affected one's outlook. 


More than likely, some of the first histories one learned early in life were family stories told and retold by close relatives. Sharing details about where our relatives came from and how they got there provide the framework for our own history. They came became there was more work to be found, or to escape some form of persecution. Perhaps there was a major dispute within the family, causing them to separate and move apart. Stories like these in the form of oral history reflect the intimacy by which a person remembers their ancestry. 


Oral history can be utilized for all kinds of research, whether it's for a school project or something national in scope. Here's how you can start on your oral history journey:

     -Think about who's story you want to hear and record. Maybe it's a story that would help with your research or just for posterity.

     -When you decide to record someone's story, make sure you get their permission beforehand.

     -Write a list of basic questions to establish the person's background (i.e. name, date of birth, name of parents, place of birth, school, work)

     -A recorder (audio cassette or digital) is necessary for preserving their story and for writing subsequent transcripts. Make sure there are      batteries!

     -The recording process can be very fluid and tangents are common with conversation.

     -Start out with some friendly conversation to make them comfortable, then dive into the questions.

     -After you're done, let them know what you'll do with the recording and transcribing afterwards.


These are just some tips to help get your started on oral history work. You can find more information online at various oral history websites or visiting your local library. County archives, research centers, and genealogical groups are also great resources to help with recording practices. For more in-depth research help, visit the Researchers Help page here on the History Hub!