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CRJC Research Guide

What Are Archives?

The term archives can have many different connotations, and the word can be used to refer to several different concepts. Many use the word archives to refer to collections of documents that are old or of historical significance--regardless of organization--for example, the back issues of a periodical. The noun archive (without an –s) is commonly used to describe collections of backup data in computing.

Archives, as a place, are responsible for preserving the legacy of an organization, a company, a person, a family, etc. Archives, as a resource, provide access to primary and secondary materials that document the place they are preserving. Archives, as a service, ensure that future generations can continuously learn from the collective voices of our past.

Archive Terminology

Archival Research can be overwhelming for those just learning the process. Most archival terms and processed are standardized, so that any researcher can proficiently conduct their research. Below are some definitions used by archival institutions/repositories throughout the world. 

  1. Finding Aid: A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. They are guides that help "aid" the "finding" process when conducting research. Finding aids help archivists maintain quality control of resources provided when researchers visit. They also help researchers to understand how a collection is organized, and where they can find certain items. While most finding aids are hosted online, there are still some institutions that have hard copy aids.
  2. Provenance: – 1. The origin or source of something. – 2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or group of items.
  3. Fonds: The entire body of records of an organization, family, or individual that have been created and accumulated as the result of an organic process. Due to the nature of our records, Central Piedmont Archives uses the terms "fonds" and "collections" interchangeably. 
  4. Collection: A group of documents of any provenance that is intentionally assembled based on subject, form, geographic scope, or some other common characteristic.
  5. Series - Documents arranged systematically or maintained as a unit because they relate to a particular function or subject, result from the same activity, have a particular form, or because of some other relationship arising out of their creation or, arising out of their receipt and use. Many series contain groups of related papers that can be grouped under sub-series.

  6. File - An organized unit of documents, usually within a series, brought together because they relate to the same subject, activity, or transaction.

  7. Item -  An archival unit that can be distinguished from a group and that is complete in itself. Items are usually found within files.

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