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What Are Archives?

In the course of daily life, individuals and organizations create and keep information about their personal and business activities. Archivists identify and preserve portions of this recorded information that have lasting value.

These records -- and the places they are kept -- are called "archives." Archival records take many forms, including correspondence, diaries, financial and legal documents, photographs, and sound recordings.

Who Uses Archives?

Archives provide firsthand information about the past. They are valuable to museum researchers, scholars, students, journalists, lawyers, and others who want to know about people, places, and events in the past.

Archives in the Museum of American History supply information to staff and other researchers about the artifacts the Museum collects and the historical themes that it studies and interprets. This information reaches broader audiences through exhibitions and publications.

All state governments, and many local governments, universities, businesses, libraries, and historical societies, maintain archives. More than 4,500 are listed in the National Historical Publications and Records Commission's Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States, Second Edition, 1988.

Washington, D.C.: City Of Archives

As the national capital, Washington is home to the country's largest concentration of archival records.

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution has ten distinct archives as well as its better-known collections of artifacts and history specimens. These archives support research and exhibitions in areas as diverse as anthropology, space science, and the history of the Smithsonian itself. The ten archives hold an estimated 50,000 cubic feet of paper documents, seven million still photographs, and thousands of motion picture films and video and audio recordings. These archives and related special collections are described in a brochure available from the Smithsonian Institution Archives (202)357-1420. 

National Archives

The National Archives holds millions of records of legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. The original founding documents of the United States are on permanent display in the Archives Exhibit Hall at 7th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W. The heaviest use of the National Archives is by genealogists searching census, immigration, and veterans' records. The Archives also has major holdings of photographs, motion picture films, and maps. A Metrorail subway station is named for the Archives. 

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress provides information services to the United States Congress and technical services to the nation's libraries. It houses one of the world's great research collections.

The Manuscript Division of the Library holds personal papers and records of organizations in the areas of politics, literature, science, religion, military and naval history, and African American history and culture. The well-known photographs of the Farm Security Administration are among the many archival collections in the Prints and Photographs Division. The Music Division holds the papers of George Gershwin and other composers, artists, and conductors. There also are major holdings of archival materials in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. 

Other Archives in Washington

American National Red Cross Archives, Gallaudet University Archives, George Washington University's Special Collections Division, Georgetown University's Special Collections Division, Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, National Academy of Sciences, and Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Learn About Archives

Local archives may be your most convenient source of answers to these frequently asked questions:

Where can I find information on the history of my family? My community? My business or organization? Are the older documents in my possession valuable for historical purposes? What should I do with them?

The Archival Profession

Archivists identify, organize, and preserve archival records. They also assist users of archives to locate needed information.

The Society of American Archivists is the national professional association of individuals and institutions concerned with the preservation and use of archives. Founded in 1936, it has more than four thousand members and serves the field through programs in education, research, and publication. The Society is a source of information about archival education, local and regional professional associations, and specialists in the archival field. Contact the Society at 527 S. Wells St., 5th Floor, Chicago, IL. 60607-3922. (312)922-0140; Fax (312)347-1452. 


Revised: August 10, 2006