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Library News

Getting Started with Archival Research

by Jonathan Bloy on 2022-03-21T08:42:11-05:00 | Comments

from Elynor Gregorich, Graduate Assistant

Exciting new developments are on the way for Edgewood College Archives! One of our current projects in the library will result in searchable, detailed information about the unique materials that are preserved in our care. This blog post introduces some archive-y terminology you might come across when doing research with primary source materials and highlights the best sources to dig into for your research in Edgewood College Archives.

Archival Materials and Terms

Because archives tend to contain one-of-a-kind, unpublished materials, those materials are more difficult to describe than typical library resources. Describing each individual item, the way individual books are described in library catalogs, would take many lifetimes- we would never be done, and users would never be able to read through so many descriptions! Instead of catalog entries for individual items, archival institutions often provide tools called finding aids which describe groups of materials.

A finding aid typically describes a unit of items known as a collection. The extent of a collection is determined on a case-by-case basis, but the materials in a collection usually have a common provenance. Provenance refers to where the materials came from; maybe they were created by the same person or department, or collected for a particular purpose? These contextual details give background information about a collection and are a big part of what makes the materials meaningful or interesting. A finding aid for a collection of archival materials describes the materials and their provenance by answering questions like these:

  • Where did the collection come from?

  • When were the materials made, and by whom?

  • What kind of stuff is in the collection, and how much stuff is there?

  • Is it arranged in a certain order?

  • What happened to the materials between the time they were created and the time they entered the archives?

  • Did the archivist do anything to get the materials ready for people to see?

  • Does the collection contain sensitive information that users will not be able to access?

Finding aids summarize the answers to these questions, and often provide a contents list, though items are usually not listed one-by-one. If the materials are in folders, there might be a list of folder titles. If the collection is broken down into smaller units called series or subseries, the finding aid might only list the title of each series (e.g. Series 1: Minutes, Series 2: Press Releases, etc.). Individual items are sometimes listed in a finding aid, but usually only when that item is in such high demand that users want to know about it right away.

It is difficult to anticipate what archives users will find interesting, especially since we need to think long-term! What interests researchers in 10 years? What about in 50 years, or in 200 years? We create the best descriptions we can, balancing details against the extra time it takes to find and record those details. An archivist's first instinct may be to provide archives users with all possible information about a collection, but being that thorough means that other collections must sit and wait their turn to be described. While they wait, nobody knows about those hidden collections and they can’t be used.

Our ongoing description project is slowly laying a solid foundation for the description of Edgewood College Archives collections. But don’t worry! You can dive in to your research right away by starting with these two pathways: Edgewood College Digital Collections and the Archives Holdings list.

Major Pathways for Edgewood College Archives Research

1. Digital Collections

Our Digital Collections contain scanned photographs, yearbooks, publications, oral histories, dissertations, newspaper clippings, event programs, and more. You don’t need to visit the library to see them, and they are a great starting point for your research into Edgewood College History!

Screenshot of the Digital Collections from Edgewood College library showing six collections

Our digital materials are organized into collections, although “collection” in this case does not mean the same as a unit of archival materials that share a common source or provenance. Our digital collections, as seen in the above screenshot of our digital collections homepage, are:

  • Edgewood College History

  • Women of Edgewood College

  • Owen J. Gromme Field Notes

  • Edgewood Scholars’ Collection

  • Creative Arts Journals

  • The Torch - College Yearbooks

To get an overview of the kinds of materials present in each collection, visit the digital collections homepage and click on the title of the collection. You can browse or search within a collection, search all collections together, or select any combination of digital collections for your search. Use the Advanced Search function to make your results more specific, or from the results page, narrow your results using filters such as date and subject. Many items in our digital collections, such as The Torch yearbooks, come with searchable transcripts so that your search can pick up on names and captions within the page images.

Tip: When searching for people, remember to account for nicknames and married names!  Susan and Catherine might be listed as Sue and Cathy.


2. Archives Holdings list

Selected items from our archives have been digitized and made available in our Digital Collections, but what about all the materials that have not been digitized? While our finding aid project progresses, we present this temporary solution: the Archives Holdings list.

Edgewood College Archives Holdings List

This document is similar to the contents list in a finding aid. It lists the titles of boxes and the titles of folders inside those boxes. Instead of covering a single collection, though, it represents a significant portion of our total holdings: approximately 200 linear feet of archival material!

There are some pretty serious flaws in the Holdings list, though. For one thing, it is not up-to-date. It started as one long outline. After careful checking, we broke it down into sections which represent different boxes of materials. (The red text you see after each section is a location code used by library staff when retrieving materials from the archives.) However, we have not verified the folder titles listed inside each box.

Some materials may have been rearranged, dates may have been adjusted, and items may even have been transferred to other divisions of Edgewood College for safekeeping. In addition, some items may be unavailable due to access restrictions. Some boxes in the archives are not listed in this document at all. Our ongoing accessioning project will eventually clear up these inaccuracies, but this flawed Holdings list is our way of helping archives users find out about our collections in the meantime.

How it works:

The numbers you see in the Holdings List are codes from a custom-made classification system. The first four-digit part is a code for an area of information such as Student Publications (3061) or Buildings (3010). After a dash, a two-digit code stands for a more specific sub-area of information. For example, 3010-17 stands for Buildings - Oscar Rennebohm Library. More codes separated by dashes can be added on to the classification number to represent even more specific areas of information: 3010-17-09 is Buildings - Oscar Rennebohm Library - Library Planning/Building.

In general, each section followed by a location in red text represents one box of archival materials, with each list item corresponding to a folder title. You can browse the list or use the control-f/command-f function to search for keywords within the document.

Archives materials are available to researchers by appointment only, so get in touch with the library to schedule your appointment. If you have specific items in mind, reference the classification code, the box or folder title, and the box’s location (in red text). If you don’t find what you are looking for in the Archives Holdings list, that’s okay too! Just tell us what topic interests you and we may be able to find the information you are looking for or recommend some materials to assist you in your research.

Please allow plenty of time for us to respond to your request. It may take a while for us to prepare the materials because they must be retrieved from the archives.

Good luck with your research!

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