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Using Resources


Arrangement and description of archives and manuscripts

There is a certain amount of haphazard searching and serendipity involved when browsing through an archive or searching for a particular document in a collection. However, in order to make effective use of time in your research process, you will need to understand:

  • the general principles of arranging archives
  • the system of arrangement of a particular collection

Archives are arranged to preserve the authenticity of the original context in which records were created or gathered together by maintaining the original relationships between the various units of material. They will be described hierarchically as an entire unit (collection), via sub-units (sub-collections, series), to actual files and items (individual documents). Therefore, you should always remember that archives and collections of manuscripts are almost never physically arranged by subject.

Most often, they will be organised by provenance, by form (grouping like documents with like) or by original function. At the document level, the individual items may be organised chronologically or alphabetically by author. Understanding how an archive works as a whole will give you access to its context, within which you will then be able to place and analyse single documents of interest to your research.

The description of documents or entire collections in various lists and inventories can be done on any number of intellectual principles of arrangement, including topical. Guides, finding aids, handlists, inventories, or indexes do not have to reflect the physical arrangement of a collection, although they often do for practical purposes.

Given the above complexities of the physical arrangement and description of archives and manuscripts, subject access to any unit of material of interest to you as a researcher is particularly problematic. The archivist's or curator's knowledge of a repository and the collections within it is often the best way to obtain that level of access to the original documents.

An example of a typical arrangement commonly used to organise manuscript material in UK repositories:

Charles Booth (1840-1916) and Mary Catherine Booth (1847-1939) Papers (Senate House Library, MS 797). Here is a full description of this collection.
  1. Correspondence
    Letters from various persons, arranged alphabetically, to various members of the Booth family. The letters from each person are subsequently arranged chronologically and each letter given an item number.

  2. Papers
    Papers other than letters, i.e. deeds, essays, material connected with published works, some printed pamphlets, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings, obituaries, etc.

  3. Travel diaries, sketchbooks and sketches
    Notebooks containing travel writing, sketchbooks, drawings and paintings by various members of the Booth family.

  4. Miscellaneous
    Newspaper cuttings, invitations, admission cards, etc.
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