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LIT 494: Guide to Literary Archives (Capstone)


Here is a selective list of definitions useful in the study of literary archives. For additional information, see The Dictionary of Archives Terminology from the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

  • Archives: records created or received by a person, family, or organization and preserved because of their continuing value (SAA).
  • Digital archive: online collections that strive for completeness "but have a limited regard for connections between the documents they host" (Van Hulle 167). Examples include The Whitman Archive and the Ivan Doig Archive
  • Digital edition: limited in scope, these focus often on one work (Van Hulle 166-7). Examples include  Woolf Online and Digital Thoreau.
  • Digital surrogate: any digital copy of a record on any analog medium, such as paper, parchment, motion-picture film, analog audio, and analog video. The reasons for producing a digital surrogate vary but include protection or replacement of the original, creation of a copy for the archives so the original may be retained by the creator, improving accessibility, or creation of a more legible or audible version of the original (SAA). 
  • Finding aid: a descriptive document usually consisting of contextual and structural information about an archival resource/collection; an intellectual inventory used to identify and call up contents of a collection.
  • Fonds: the entire body of records of an organization, family, or individual that have been created and accumulated as the result of an organic process reflecting the functions of the creator (SAA).
  • Literary manuscripts: Drafts, notes, worksheets, manuscripts, proofs, and other materials commonly associated with the production of creative works, including fiction, poetry, plays, still or motion pictures, and other works (SAA).
  • Original order: organization and sequence of records established by the creator of the records (SAA).
  • Primary source: in literature, a “primary source” or, more specifically a “primary text,” generally means the literary work that is being read/studied/analyzed (Shippensburg University). The author's personal papers and manuscripts are also primary sources.
  • Provenance: a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context (SAA).
  • Secondary source: a work commenting on another work (primary sources), such as reviews, criticism, and commentaries; a work not based on direct observation but relying on sources.
  • Special collection(s): a cohesive collection of noncirculating research materials held together by provenance or by a thematic focus; an institution or an administrative unit of a library responsible for managing materials outside the general library collection, including rare books, archives, manuscripts, maps, oral history interviews, and ephemera (SAA).

Some Best Practices, Caveats, etc.

Using archives generally (online or in-person)

Know the repository – familiarize yourself with their web site. What is their subject focus, location, hours, policies & procedures, contact points, rules? Do this work before you visit or contact them. You'll get much better assistance.

Remember that research takes time -- archival repositories can't always respond immediately or within the timeframe you'd like so plan and work ahead.

Using collections in person?

  • Contact the repository ahead of your visit to make sure the collections you want are available.
  • Phone cameras are usually permitted, personal scanners not so much. Ask before you use any equipment because each archive and each collection has its own boundaries.

Using collections online?

  • Contact the repository if you can’t determine if something is available digitally – sometimes it is but hasn’t been linked yet. Sometimes they will help students and digitize things for you for free or at a discount. Be sure you know how to describe/identify what you are interested in and where it is in their collections.
  • Be aware of the extent of what has been digitized – all of the collection (rarely)? Selections? Specific series? Representative pieces? Ask what governed their digitizing priorities -- all of it costs money.

Best practices include...

  • Keep a research journal to track where you’ve looked, where you’ve located items, search terms you’ve used, what you'd still like to find, etc.
  • Take notes whether you’re using a physical or online collection
    • What is the physical and web location of the collection?
    • What is the preferred citation format for the collection?
    • What collection number/title/box did you find this source in? The finding aid will tell you this.
    • Are there other collections at this institution or digitally available on their web site might be related to the one you’re interested in?
    • At the item level, what do you notice about materials (type of document, date of creation, correspondents, mode of production…)?
    • What is the provenance of the collection?
    • Are there any restrictions on its use?
  • Be prepared and open to finding things you don't expect. Follow goat trails -- don't expect archival research to be linear, logical, or neat.
  • Enjoy what you're doing - it's a privilege and a rare treat to look at the personal papers of another human being.