Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

What is an Archive?

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) has a variety of definitions for "archives." One of SAA's shorter definitions is simply "a physical or digital collection of historical records."[1] A more detailed definition notes that archival materials can be created by a person, family, or organization--either public or private--and that these materials are preserved by cultural heritage institutions, such as the USC Libraries, because of the "enduring value" (i.e., potential research value) of the information that they contain. Related to the concept of enduring value is the common use of archival resources "as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator."[2]

As Archival Projects Librarian in Special Collections, my main responsibility is to "process" archival collections that have been donated to or acquired by the USC Libraries. In an archival context, "processing" means taking physical and intellectual control over a collection of records by organizing them, re-housing them into acid-free folders and boxes, and describing them using archival description standards so that these records are preserved and accessible for future research.

The kinds of materials in these collections can take a variety of forms, including correspondence, photographs, business records, family memorabilia, posters, unpublished manuscripts with revisions for future publication, research files, audiovisual material, and many others. While processing collections, I have found locks of hair in envelopes labeled "final mementos," medical records detailing a nervous breakdown, a map of George Bernard Shaw's home drawn on a postcard as a guide of entry for his guest, 18th century estate inventories, and pornographic images rendered via ASCII art and printed on 1970s tractor-feed paper (this last item was hidden in an early computer company's corporate records). If you can make a case for an item's value to future scholarship, it could be worth archiving!

See some snapshots of example archival materials during processing below.

Items pictured above:

(Image 1) Roman Robert Söllner illustrated notebook, 1948

(Image 2) William Mason photographs of Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, 1963-1968

(Image 3) Hamlin Garland's 1877 diary | Hamlin Garland papers

(Image 4) Space Race tabletop game, circa 1960s

Header image: ©matousekfoto -

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