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Southern Maryland Studies Center Research


What are Archives?: Differentiating between Archives, Libraries, and Museums

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.

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Archives collect original unpublished or rare materials also called primary sources.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.

Southern Maryland Studies Center (SMSC)

The Southern Maryland Studies Center (SMSC) is an archival repository and research center that seeks to collect, preserve, and provide access to materials that document the history and culture of Southern Maryland, including Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary's counties, with the southern portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

The SMSC was founded by the College of Southern Maryland on the La Plata Campus in 1976 in order to provide a central location for research on this historically rich region. It is open to students, historians, genealogists, and all members of the public.

The Archives houses hundreds of unique collections consisting of personal papers, records of local businesses and organizations, manuscript material, photographic material, rare books, maps, architectural drawings, oral history interviews, and other audiovisual material dating from the 18th century to the present. These materials provide valuable insight to the economic, social, and political currents that helped shape this region.

The Maryland Collection contains printed and published materials, including books, newspapers, journals, and periodicals. Visitors can also access state and federal census records, newspapers, colonial records, and church records on microfilm from the 18th century to the early 20th century.

Donate to the SMSC

How to Donate

If you wish to donate records of organizations or individuals for inclusion in the archives, please contact the SMSC at to discuss the materials and process. Staff will work with donors to identify what should be preserved.

All materials that are accepted for review must be accompanied by a completed and signed Deed of Gift form (provided by SMSC staff).

The donated materials will be evaluated prior to inclusion in the SMSC archives. Those that are accepted for inclusion in the archives will be accessioned, processed, and preserved, while those that are not accepted for accession will be disposed of or returned according to the donor’s instructions included in the deed of gift.

Donations or gifts to SMSC are considered personal property and are governed by the College of Southern Maryland Board of Trustees’ policies FIS:820, FIS:823, and FIS:824.

Collection Processing and Preservation

All materials are evaluated, described, housed in archival-quality storage containers and stored in a cool, dry and temperature-stable environment for continuous preservation. 

The processing, accession and preservation of donated archival collections are time consuming and expensive activities.  For this reason, donors are encouraged to contribute to cover the costs generated by their donated collections through monetary donations that can be made to:

  • The Southern Maryland Studies Center Fund: donations to this fund are immediately available to the SMSC to use for its collections.
  • The Robert Ware Straus Fund: this fund was established in 2002 to provide continuous funding for the SMSC.

What to Donate

Records of Local Businesses and Organizations

Architectural records, articles of incorporation, charters, correspondence, bylaws, reports, memoranda, meeting minutes and other materials, organizational charts, policy and procedure manuals, subject files, publications (generated by the organization), fund-raising materials, speeches, photographs, newspaper clippings about the organization, press releases and public relations material.

Records of Individuals

Correspondence, diaries, speeches, scrapbooks, autobiographical sketches, professional files, photographs, films, audio and video tapes.