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Libraries and archives

Here you'll see terms like ‘provenance’ for the first time. Don’t worry, they will be explained in later sections.

Libraries Archives

Primary or Secondary sources?

Mainly secondary.
Most of the material in libraries is published.
Mainly primary.
Most archival documents were written or typed by the creator, rather than printed by a publisher, which is why they are often referred to as manuscripts. Published material is only kept if it was used or collected by the person or institution in the course of their work.

Is it possible to browse the holdings?

Library materials are usually on open access. You can search the catalogue or simply browse the relevant shelves.
Archives are stored securely in a separate room, called a strong room, so you have to request them. To identify the items you’d like to see, you have to browse the catalogue.


Subject, author, title... Provenance and original order (discussed in section 2).


Individual items.
Items can be found by using keyword searches etc. A book has meaning and usefulness independently of other books.
Hierarchical description.
Archival catalogues reflect the way the documents were created, so the catalogue has different levels of description (discussed in section 4). Documents require contextual information which can often be found in the structure of the catalogue. Keyword searches are often very helpful but it is important to consider how every item relates to the rest of the collection.

Is it possible to borrow items?

Yes, in most cases.
Most libraries will have one or two sections which are ‘reference only’ but most of their holdings will be available for members to borrow.
Normally, you can see original archival documents only in a designated room, called a searchroom or reading room, once you have registered as a reader (discussed in section 5).

Are there any restrictions to access?

Not usually.
Libraries exist to provide access to information.
A document may be ‘restricted/closed’ if it is fragile or for certain legal reasons, such as Data Protection (section 6). They are kept because of their evidential value and because they will probably eventually be put on open/unrestricted access.

Where do the items come from?

Most of the books in libraries will have been bought or donated. Researchers generally only want information about how a book was acquired if it is very rare. Documents are often transferred from another department of the same institution. They can be donated (given permanently) or deposited (given on a long-term loan) by individuals or outside institutions. They are occasionally bought at auction or from a bookseller but this is rare. The provenance (history of ownership) of documents is very important, for reasons we shall discuss in the next section.

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