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Types of Archives

There are many varieties of archives, and the types of materials they collect differ as well. Defining your research topic and knowing what sorts of materials you are looking for will help you determine the appropriate institutions to contact. Here is a brief overview of repository types:

  • College and university archives are archives that preserve materials relating to a specific academic institution. Such archives may also contain a "special collections" division (see definition below). College and university archives exist first to serve their parent institutions and alumni, and then to serve the public.

    Examples: Stanford University Archives, Mount Holyoke College Archives.

  • Corporate archives are archival departments within a company or corporation that manage and preserve the records of that business. These repositories exist to serve the needs of company staff members and to advance business goals. Corporate archives allow varying degrees of public access to their materials depending on the company's policies and archival staff availability.

    Examples: Ford Motor Company Archives, Kraft Foods Archives.

  • Government archives are repositories that collect materials relating to local, state, or national government entities.

    Examples: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, the New York State Archives, City of Boston Archives.

  • Historical societies are organizations that seek to preserve and promote interest in the history of a region, a historical period, nongovernment organizations, or a subject. The collections of historical societies typically focus on a state or a community, and may be in charge of maintaining some governmental records as well.

    Examples: The Wisconsin Historical Society, the National Railway Historical Society, the San Fernando Valley Historical Society.

  • Museums and archives share the goal of preserving items of historical significance, but museums tend to have a greater emphasis on exhibiting those items, and maintaining diverse collections of artifacts or artwork rather than books and papers. Any of the types of repositories mentioned in this list may incorporate a museum, or museums may be stand-alone institutions. Likewise, stand-alone museums may contain libraries and/or archives.

    Examples: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

  • Religious archives are archives relating to the traditions or institutions of a major faith, denominations within a faith, or individual places of worship. The materials stored in these repositories may be available to the public, or may exist solely to serve members of the faith or the institution by which they were created.

    Examples: United Methodist Church Archives, American Jewish Archives.

  • Special collections are institutions containing materials from individuals, families, and organizations deemed to have significant historical value. Topics collected in special collections vary widely, and include medicine, law, literature, fine art, and technology. Often a special collections repository will be a department within a library, holding the library's rarest or most valuable original manuscripts, books, and/or collections of local history for neighboring communities.

    Examples: Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago, American Philosophical Society Library.