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An archives also collects information resources, but they are usually primary source materials that are unpublished and almost always unique, meaning that they cannot be easily replaced if damaged, lost, or destroyed.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.