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Understanding Archives

What are Archives?  

Archives are records produced by people and organizations, documenting the way they lived, thought, loved, and worked. 

"The archives" is also a term used to describe the place where these records are kept. This could refer to a physical place - a room with shelves and boxes - or a digital repository.

"To archive" means to make a decision to invest in the storage, safety, and accessibility of an item based on its perceived historical, cultural, or institutional value.

Want to learn more? The Library of Congress has a great post on the many ways the word archive is used, "What Do you Mean by Archive?"

Why are Archives? 

“There is no separation between past and present, meaning that an alternative future is also determined by our understanding of the past.” — Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance

“From such traces, we seek data from which to make sense of individuals, organizations, social movements, and sociohistorical settings.” - Michael R. Hill, Archival Strategies and Techniques 

"It is also within the archive that acts of remembering and regeneration occur, where a suture between the past and present is performed, in the indeterminate zone between event and image, document and monument" - Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever

"Investigating the past can help us better occupy the present. Plus, it's really fun." - Mary Mann, Cooper Union Archives Librarian

How to Search for Archives

WorldCat - A comprehensive database with listings for books, videos, and archival materials stored in libraries worldwide (

ArchiveGrid - A database containing over 5 million records describing archival materials about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more; over 1,000 different archival institutions are represented, including archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies. (

  • NOTE: Materials in The Cooper Union Archives & Special Collections are searchable through both these databases, as well as via The Cooper Union Library's Bobcat search engine, once they are processed and made available via 

Additional tools for discovering archival materials include:

Useful Terminology 

Archival Materials - Records in any format - e.g. business documents, personal letters, photographs, film, and objects - retained for their continuing value. Typically archival materials are composed of primary sources: direct evidence, first-hand testimony, or eyewitness accounts.

  • The Cooper Union Archives & Special Collections consist of primary source materials (the Archives) as well as books, some rare, that help inform our understanding of these materials (the Special Collections). 

Collection - A broad term encompassing both personal papers and organizational records collections. Archival materials are grouped into collections according to provenance (i.e., source of materials), or type/theme, if provenance is unknown. 

Collection Guide (aka Finding Aid) - A written guide to a collection that describes what is in the collection and how it is arranged, as well as giving context for how, why, and by whom the documents in the collection were created.  

Processing - Preparing archival materials for use by assessing, organizing, and describing them, as well as performing basic preservation activities (such as moving materials into acid-free folders and boxes).

Provenance - This term refers to the history of an object - who created it, who owned it, who bought and sold it. In the archival world, the “principle of provenance" dictates that archives are arranged by source (as opposed to being arranged by topic).

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