Teaching and Research with Archival Collections

Top Tips

Don't feel obligated to approach an archivist with a very clear-cut request (such as: "I'm interested in Series 1, boxes 4-5" or "I'm interested in all your material on Person X"). If you are open to widening your parameters, the more you tell your archivist counterpart about what you are interested in studying with your students, the more they might be able to recommend related materials that will enrich your project.

Similarly, be aware that a collection may not hold enough material on a particular topic to support the student activity or project you desire. For example, a college archives founded in 1990 may only contain sporadic or incomplete records dating back to the college's founding in 1900, because no one may have been systematically collecting those records prior to the founding of the archives.

In this case, work with your archivist colleague to determine what useful material the collection holds, and shape your assignment to fit those materials.

Images from the Baruch College Archives

Street cleaning man on a New York City street clearing snow with a hose and truck.

Snow fighting in New York City, 1914, from the Institute of Public Administration Collection.

The Work of an Archivist

Archivists collect materials to document an institution, event, group of people, movement, or other theme based on a collecting policy. This may take the shape of an institutional archives (the archives of a corporation, government agency, university, or social organization held by that same organization, for example) or a special collection (such as materials documenting an event that were donated to, or collected by, a university archives, historical society, or other collecting institution). Archivists may also work with manuscript collections (such as the personal papers of an artist or a historical figure).

Many archivists have graduate degrees or advanced training in subject areas pertaining to their collections. They often are also experts in what a collection may contain, having had experience processing the collection, describing it, or helping researchers use the materials. Assume your archivist has at least a familiarity with your topic or academic discipline and approach them as a peer and colleague.

The Finding Aid

Since most archival collections focus on unique materials, archivists typically do not create individual catalog records for each item like librarians would for traditional library materials. That would take forever, and would also make it challenging for researchers to understand documents in their context. Instead, archivists describe collections thematically and hierarchically, in groups called Series. 

For example, you might find in a collection a Series about Correspondence, and within that, groups (Subseries, Boxes, and Folders) organized according to year, or conversation partner. Or, you might find a Series called Meeting Minutes, that has all of an organization's meeting minutes sorted by year. If a collection arrives with an organizational scheme in place, archivists maintain that scheme; if not, they organize the material in a logical way to help users understand the material's context.

This description style usually is written up in a document called a finding aid, which allows researchers to view the boxes and folders of materials in order. Researchers can then select which material to view. Digital collections may also appear in a searchable database, often connected to a finding aid.

To see an example, view a searchable finding aid for one of Baruch's Collections, the Luther Gulick Papers.

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Jessica Wagner Webster
Newman Library, 523