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Getting Started with Archives: About

This guide serves as an introduction to locating and evaluating collection description, and beginning archival research at NYPL

What are archives?

The term "archives" encompasses a number of different ideas. The Society of American Archivists identifies twelve separate definitions, which often overlap in meaning. For the purposes of this guide, "archives" is defined as the records created or received by persons, families, or organizations and preserved for their enduing value.


The content of an archival collection is determined by the person, family, or organization responsible for its creation, and whatever life the collection had after its creation before being acquired by an archival repository. While gathered for a specific purpose by one or many actors, archives can be investigated by researchers for reasons different than that founding purpose. Many researchers, after consulting available primary and secondary source material, turn to archives for specific details about persons, organizations, subjects, events, or time periods - or for specific examples of material culture.


While traditionally thought of as unpublished manuscripts, archives can contain all kinds of published or unpublished media. Collections at NYPL hold correspondence and financial records, photographs and video, electronic records, microfilm, printed matter, sound recordings, and artifacts. An archivist consolidates information about the collection and its organization in a document called a finding aid.

In this guide

  • Preparing to search for archival collections
  • Online and offline tools for locating archives
  • Interpreting search results in each of these tools
  • Sample searches by person, organization, keyword, or citation
  • How to prepare for a research visit
  • A glossary of archival terms and abbreviations

Additional resources

For persons just beginning to think about archives, this resource (published by the Society of American Archivists) has detailed information about archival research and methodology.

There are many places to study archives at NYPL

For an overview of archives reading rooms, see this guide.

For information about the Schomburg Center Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, see this guide.

For information specifically about locating materials which are digitized and can be consulted online, see this guide.