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Introduction to Archival Research: Understanding How Manuscript Collections are Organized

Understanding How Manuscript Collections are Organized

Understanding how manuscript collections are organized

1.    Documents are created as a result of some activity or function.

The most significant and distinguishing characteristic of archival materials is context. Documents are created or compiled as a result of some activity or function and, as such, they are the documentary evidence of the activities of individuals or corporate bodies.

For example, individuals often keep receipts to document expenses over the course of a year for income tax purposes.   Department stores maintain inventory records to document what has been bought and sold. In both cases, the documents generated reflect activity.

2.    An archival collection may consist of multiple groups of documents.

These document groups are called series, and are related by virtue of the fact that they were generated or accumulated by the same individual or corporate body in the course of performing a specific activity or function. The relationships among the different document groups, or series, of a corporate body often mirror the structure of the organization. In the case of personal papers on the other hand, there may be little structure to the organization of the materials, or it may be idiosyncratic.

3.    Context informs the researcher of a collection's or series' potential content.

Collections are assembled around the life and activities of an individual or family, or the functions and activities of a corporate body. Understanding the activity that generated a set of documents informs us of the collection's possible content.

For example, letters written to exchange news among family members are likely to contain information about social events, births, deaths, and personal commentary on contemporary events. Records created as the result of business transactions are likely to include business, legal, and related financial records. Identifying the generating activities alerts us to what is likely to be found in a collection, but in no way precludes the possibility that other types of information might also be included.

4.    Material types indicate potential information in a collection.

Lists of the types of material (i.e., letters, diaries, account books, etc.) found in a collection often indicate the potential types of information mat might be found. For example, financial daybooks indicate the existence of business transactions, while diaries point toward personal reflection and observation.

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