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Southern Maryland Studies Center Research: Home



First-time archives patrons frequently experience something of a culture shock since their expectations of what an archives should be are based on their experience of libraries or museums. Most of us tend to equate the two, but there are significant differences between them.

This guide is intended to introduce new users to some of the customs of archives. For your first visit or hundredth visit to an archives, you can ensure a more productive time by being prepared.

What are Archives: Differentiating Between Archives, Libraries, and Museums

Archives—n.  Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.

Archives collect original unpublished or rare materials also called primary sources. The records held by archives are unique and irreplaceable. By their very nature, archival materials are fragile and vulnerable to improper handling. If an archival document is lost, stolen, or irreparably damaged, the information it contains could be lost forever.

The nature of the materials collected by archives are fundamentally different from those found in libraries. Libraries collect published materials that range from fiction to scholarly texts. Library materials are most often secondary sources. The holdings of one library may be duplicated in whole or in part by the holdings of another. If a book is lost, it can probably be replaced.

Similarly, the materials collected by a museum have key differences from those collected by an archives. Museum collections are more object oriented, as opposed to being primarily paper based. They are intended for exhibition.

Despite these differences, archives, libraries, and museums all work together. It is common to for a museum to have an archives and library, or for an archives or library to lend items for a museum exhibition. All three are focused on education.