What is an Archives?

Perhaps the best way to understand an archives is to compare it to an institution most of us are familiar with – the public library. Whereas the library is traditionally based on the book and the printed page, an archives is a “collection of collections” (a collection is an “archive”; the place where it is kept is an “archives”). Typical of most archives, Pasadena Museum of History’s collections contain not just books and periodicals, but photographs, manuscripts, maps, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and ephemera of all kinds.

Although materials are usually housed together by format, they are also found combined in “special collections,” or groups of materials donated to the Museum by an individual or organization and kept together permanently under the donor’s name. It is an established archival practice to attempt to preserve the original arrangement or filing system because it often reveals something of interest about the creators and the time in which they lived.

Because of the variety of materials included in such collections, the only way to bring them together and to alert the researcher to their existence is through indexing. At this point, most of our indexes have been manually compiled, but we are progressing toward consolidating and automating access to the numerous lists and files which are currently the only keys to the contents of the collections.

Since it is broken up into separate collections, the Archives does not lend itself to browsing. The fragility and rarity of some of the material requires that casual use be discouraged. Researchers must do as much preliminary work as possible using the finding tools available in the reading room; only when they have located likely resources are they allowed to handle the original materials.

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