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Archives and Special Collections Research: Overview

A guide providing tips and strategies for navigating archives and special collections libraries.

Introduction to Archives


This guide is intended to help students and faculty find archival and manuscript collections held at the DeGolyer Library and elsewhere.


What is an archive?

An organized collection of the noncurrent records of the activities of a business, government, organization, institution, or other corporate body, or the personal papers of one or more individuals, families, or groups, retained permanently (or for a designated or indeterminate period of time) by their originator or a successor for their permanent historical, informational, evidential, legal, administrative, or monetary value, usually in a repository managed and maintained by a trained archivist. 

Libraries vs. Archives

Libraries collect and provide access to published materials in order to keep people informed, promote scholarship and provide entertainment. They are generally staffed with individuals holding a Master of Library or Information science. 

Archives collect and provide access to unpublished materials of enduring value in order to ensure government accountability and to preserve institutional and cultural memory. Sometimes you will also see them called Special Collections, Records Depositories, or Reading Rooms. The terminology varies slightly depending on the nature of the parent institution. Archivists, sometimes called curators, are individuals holding advanced degrees in either Library/Information Science, History, or Museum Studies. 

Libraries Archives
Published materials Unpublished materials
Books, periodicals

Letters, diaries, speeches, photographs, scrapbooks, periodicals, audio and visual materials

Browse and retrieve materials yourself Request materials from staff
Individual items Collections of items
Item level cataloging Descriptions can be collection level, box level, or folder level
Multiple copies Unique materials
Can borrow materials Must view items onsite
Lower security Higher security

Types of Archives

University and college archives
  • Collect and preserve institutional memory
  • Some have records management programs
  • Typically have materials in all formats (textual records, photographic material, moving images, etc.)
  • Some have research collections (often called “manuscripts” or “special collections”)
  • Typically focus research collections on specific subject areas
Government archives
  • Municipal, provincial/state, federal records
  • Public mandate
  • Many have research collections (often called “manuscripts” or “special collections”) relevant to their geographic location and scope
Religious archives
  • Traditions and institutions of major faiths, denominations, or individual places of worship
  • Varying degrees of public access
  • Location of records depends on approach to archives management (consolidated or federated)
Community archives and historical societies
  • Preserves history of a region, historical period, theme or subject
  • Often managed by community volunteers or “lone arrangers”
Museum archives
  • Museums and archives share similar goals but collect different types of material and use different standards and best practices
  • Some museums include libraries and/or archives in addition to their collections of artifacts and/or artwork
  • Some archives have museum objects in their archival collections
  • Many museum archives in Nova Scotia
Corporate archives
  • Usually a department of a company that collects and preserves institutional memory
  • Serve the needs of the corporation
  • Varying degrees of public access

Head of Public Services, DeGolyer Library

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Christina Jensen


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Samantha Dodd
DeGolyer Library
Southern Methodist University
P.O. Box 750396
Dallas, TX 75275-0396
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