Archives and Manuscript Repository for the Continuing Presbyterian Church

Manuscript Collections :
Synthetic Collections :

Using the Archive:
An Introduction to Its Resources

For many students and researchers, the archive may be an entirely unfamiliar and consequently unused resource.  Throughout our education, we have all been exposed to libraries and many of us have received some training in how to use a library.  But an archive is entirely unlike a library, and to tap into its available wealth of materials requires some training and preparation.

The introduction that is given here pertains particularly to the PCA Historical Center, but is written with broader application in mind.  Technically, an archive is an institution concerned with the collection and preservation of the records of an organization, whereas a manuscript repository is engaged in collecting the papers of individuals.  The PCA Historical Center operates as both an archive for the PCA (and its predecessor denominations) and as a manuscript repository for the papers of selected individuals in American Presbyterian history.

What the Archive Has to Offer

Libraries deal mostly with materials that can be labeled “secondary sources.”  These are materials that are generally published and thus usually available in a number of locations.  Secondary sources are also by definition materials that are derivative or interpretive—works that are produced by using other sources.  By contrast, an archive is concerned with collecting, preserving and making accessible “primary” or original source materials.  Primary source materials are typically thought of as materials which are closest to the event in question.  They may be published, but are often unpublished, perhaps unique, and thus unavailable elsewhere.

Some of the distinctions between primary and secondary sources can be illustrated in this way:

Primary Source
Secondary Source
Diaries & journals
Minutes, Acts 
Reports of the same
1st person account  
2nd hand report
Stage play
Critical review

Competent research in many fields demands the careful use of primary sources.  In part this is because primary sources can have an evidential advantage over secondary sources.  Original documents may contain the most accurate information about an event or a person and so these documents may possess a greater authority in the presentation of information.  Because of their uniqueness, primary sources may also provide information that is not otherwise available.     


The first step in researching the archive is to determine which archive has materials that are pertinent to your work.  The most direct route to this information is through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which is available in print form at most major libraries.  This Catalog can also be accessed directly on the Internet at http://lcweb.loc.gov/coll/nucmc, and a search engine at that site will allow searches either by subject or by name.  At the same site there is also a link to a listing of over 3900 archives and manuscript repositories, arranged geographically. 

Having determined that a particular archive has materials that will aid your research, the next step is to consult the “finding aids” for each relevant collection.  This may require an actual trip to the archive, or the finding aids may be available from the archive by mail or on the Internet.  A finding aid is essentially an inventory list, providing a folder-level description of the contents of each box within a particular collection.  You should be aware that additional related materials may be located in other collections within the archive.   Careful digging in these related collections should be an expected part of the work of using an archive.  Normally the best way of finding these other materials will be to consult either the director of the archive or perhaps the person who processed the collection.

Given the nature of these institutions, a personal visit to the selected archive will likely be the most productive way to proceed further with your
research.  In planning your arrival, think to contact the archive and pre-arrange an appointment to
discuss your research.  Ask to schedule time with the person who is most familiar with the collections that you will be working with.  It may also be profitable to bring to that interview a list of questions that have occurred to you in your research thus far.  If the staff cannot answer your questions, they may at least be able to point you in the right direction.   

Calling ahead is also a good idea because it allows the staff to have some materials at hand when you arrive, making the most of your time on site.  They may also be able to assist you in finding housing during your stay.  In the case of the PCA Historical Center, housing is normally available on the campus of Covenant Theological Seminary, where the Center is located, at a very modest cost. A Guide for Visiting the PCA Historical Center, with directions and information on local accomodations, has been prepared for those who may need it.

On Location:

Arriving at the archive, allow plenty of time for your visit.  It is far better to arrive at the start of the day than to rush yourself by coming in an hour before closing.  Researching the archive is not a task that should be hurried.  For directions to the PCA Historical Center and related information, click here.

You will find that certain standard protocols apply in most archives and manuscript repositories.  Typically you will be asked to set your coat and bags aside in a place provided before signing a register. Presentation of a photo-ID is usually required and most archives will require you to sign in on a daily basis.  At this time you will also normally be asked to read the institution’s Access Policy, which gives more specific instructions on how to use the archive and its materials.  Please remember that the purpose of these rules is to insure the preservation of the valuable materials on deposit in the archive.


Most archives will operate on a call system.  This means that the stacks are closed to the public and you are not permitted to roam at will.  Instead, after consulting the archive’s catalogues and finding aids, you will fill out a call slip requesting the needed materials. Retrieving these items may take from 10 minutes to 2 hours, depending upon the institution and its current work load.  Each archive will also set a limit on the number of items that you may work with at one time.  The usual rule is “one box/one folder,” meaning that one box will be made available at a time, from which you should only remove one folder at a time.  The purpose of this rule is to insure that papers do not become misplaced in other folders and thus made more difficult to locate the next time.  You must also be careful to maintain the order of the materials as they are presented to you.

You will find that a specific study area has been set aside for you to conduct your research.   Here, some basic rules apply:  No pens or inks, never write on the documents themselves and always preserve the order of the files.  Most archives will allow the use of a laptop computer, so long as its use does not disturb others.           

Basic Archival Theory:

One key principle will unlock the organizational structure of most archives, namely the principle of provenance, or in other words, a respect for the source of a set of documents. Organizational emphasis focuses upon the creator of any set of documents.  Materials arriving at the archive are not to be arbitrarily redistributed or rearranged.  They are not to be divided up topically or even alphabetically—unless that is the order imposed by the creator of the documents.  Whenever possible, the original order of the documents is preserved, since that order itself says something about the creator of the documents. 

Success in researching the archive depends upon recognition of this principle.  The order that you might expect may not be present in a collection, and it may be necessary to read through an entire index in order to locate what you are looking for.  Your best materials may even be located in seemingly unrelated collections.  Present technologies allow an archive to migrate its finding aids to electronic format and employ sophisticated search engines to eliminate the drudgery of such searches.  But even where these methods are in place, your research will profit from taking the time to inspect the original order of the materials.  Put another way, the recognition of context is essential to the proper interpretation of any individual document.

Conducting your Research:

Good research takes patience and care.  It cannot be rushed, if it is to be done well.  You must be thorough if you expect to gather all the pertinent information, making full use of the sources at hand.

Do take time to read carefully the whole of each finding aid relevant to your work.  A good finding aid will present a wealth of information additional to its actual inventory list.   During your scheduled appointment, remember to ask to have the various features of a finding aid explained.  Every institution has its own adaptation of this basic tool, but you should pay particular attention to three sections:

Scope and Content Note:  This will be an in-depth discussion of the collection, most often prepared by the person who processed the collection and arguably the most important of the introductory sections.

Related Collections Note:  A valuable reference to other records and papers located within the archive. 

Access Restrictions:  The donor of a collection may have placed viewing restrictions on portions of that collection.  It will be important for you to find out about these restrictions before arriving at the archive.  For one thing, with advance notice, you may be able to obtain written permission from the donor or some other authorized person in order to work with restricted materials.  But do realize that in many ways the viability of the archive as an institution depends upon the trust established between the archive and its donors.  Never ask the staff of the archive to ignore these restrictions or to otherwise bend these rules to suit your purposes.    

Whenever possible, be sure to have copies made of all documents pertinent to your research.  For future reference, carefully note on each photocopy the complete citation of source.  Where photocopying is not allowed, ask the director if a microform copy might be made.  If only handwritten notes are permitted, take pains to be complete.

Finally, in your finished work, please be careful to properly cite your sources.  Full citation includes not only the author and title of the materials, but the location of those materials within the archive as well as the name of the archive holding the materials. 

Researching the archive can be a particularly rewarding experience, one which will almost always add unique content, depth and insight to your studies.  We offer this brief introduction to the workings of an archive with the prayer that we may be of help as you strive to do all your work to the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Basic Rules and Common Courtesies:

While every archive will have its own specific policies, the following rules and considerations are typical of those found in most institutions:

¨       You may not eat, drink or smoke in the archive.

¨       You should also take care to wash your hands before actually beginning to handle any materials.  To work with some items, you may be required to wear white cotton gloves, which will be provided by the archive.

¨       Due to the unique nature of the materials housed in the archive, holdings do not circulate, i.e., you cannot check them out.  In addition, photocopying and scanning are normally performed only by the staff and may even be prohibited altogether for some materials.

¨       In taking notes, the use of ink in any form is absolutely prohibited!  Pencils only. 

¨       Never write on or otherwise make any marks on the documents themselves.

¨       The documents you are allowed to work with should also be considered fragile.  Handle them with care.  Never set anything on top of the materials being examined, especially note-taking papers. 

¨       Keep materials in the order in which they were presented to you.  Remove only one folder at a time from a box, keeping the items within it in the order that you find them.  Return that folder to its place in the box before removing another.

¨       The archive will reserve all physical and intellectual property rights.  Permission to reproduce significant portions of a document must be obtained in writing and proper citation of the source must always be given.

¨       You as the researcher must assume all responsibility for observing both copyright and libel laws in the use of the materials housed in the archive.

¨       Upon leaving, please understand that the staff of the archive will need to inspect your possessions, as a precaution against accidental losses. 


Archive:  An institution that collects and preserves the records of an organization.  Normally an archive will not gather the records of unrelated organizations.

Manuscript Repository:  An institution that collects and preserves the papers of various individuals.  Its collections are usually gathered according to a theme, a time period, or a relationship to some institution.  The PCA Historical Center operates as both an archive and a manuscript repository.  

Finding Aids:  Folder-level descriptive inventory lists for the boxes of a collection.

Records:  An organization  produces “records.”

Papers:  Individuals, on the other hand, produce “papers.”  The term “papers” can include a wide range of materials in many forms and need not be limited to printed or written documents.

Collection:  This is a term that can have several meanings:   1.  It is most often used to refer to any distinct grouping or set of either records or papers.  2.  It is also used to refer collectively to the sum total of the materials housed in an archive or manuscript repository.  3.  Lastly, it may have a more technical sense, in referring to any grouping of materials in which the one who gathered the materials together (the “Collector”) was not for the most part the creator of those materials.

Provenance:  The guiding principle of archival work, the word conveys the absolute need to respect the source or creator of the materials being deposited in the archive.  When a set of documents come from an individual or organization, they are to be kept together and should not be redistributed throughout other collections.  There are many reasons for the principle of provenance, but foremost is the realization that there is a level of meaning in the sum total of the documents created.  The totality of the work says something about the individual or organization that created the materials and also provides a  necessary context for the individual items within the collection.

Span Dates:  This figure tells you the time period covered by the documents in question, and helps to indicate whether or not the collection will contain information that you are seeking.