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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.

Types of Archive Repositories

The history of humanity is too detailed to simply have a singular "type" of archive. The Society of American Archivists provides a great explanation of the types of archive repositories open for research. 

  • 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: Central Piedmont ArchivesUNC-CharlotteJohnson C. Smith UniversityQueens University.

  • 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: UNC-Charlotte Special Collections and University 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. Please note that most corporate archives will not be as accessible as College/University or Government archives.

    Examples: Duke Energy ArchivesWells FargoFord Motor Company 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 North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources - Office of Archives and History

  • 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 Mecklenburg Historical Association

  • 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: Levine Museum of the New South

  • 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: Sisters of Mercy Heritage Center (Belmont, NC), United Methodist Church Archives, American Jewish Archives