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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Libraries, repositories and archives -- What's the difference

A recent comment about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) started me thinking and if you read this blog from time to time, you know that that always results in more writing. As genealogists we are intimately involved in dealing with institutions and people who have documents of some type that we hope will give us information about our ancestors. In the simplest sense, you might be seeking to research a single photograph or letter held by an older relative. At the other end of the spectrum, you might be researching in a vast national archive with millions of documents. Both types of research have their particular challenges. But at a basic level they require the same research actions, it is only the nature of the entity storing the information in some form that changes.

Research is a basic activity in many professions and pursuits. It is a learned skill and some people excel in doing research and others are decidedly allergic to it and would not do research even if they were paid. In the practice of law, if an attorney doesn't enjoy doing research, it is common to hire research assistants. There are a lot of people out there in this world who make their living doing research. In my youth (yes, I was once a youth), we used to be assigned research papers. These were, by the nature of the students, very rudimentary, but the process was the same. In genealogy, we have a very well defined research cycle that illustrates the methodology of doing research. See this link to the Principles of Family History Research.

One of the main steps in the research cycle is to obtain and search the records we know should exist. See A Guide to Research. No matter how you sugar coat this process, it turns out to be work. It is something that you have to make an effort to accomplish. Having a huge number of records online has merely changed the method of obtaining records, the process of searching the records remains the same as it always has been. In fact, the addition of computers and the Internet to the process of research has merely added one more set of skills that have to be learned. We commonly say how much easier it is today to find the records we need, but what we are really saying is that once we have learned to do research using a computer, we don't have to sit in libraries as much as we did previously. We also have access to a huge number of libraries that we would never previously have visited.

Once we have exhausted our own pile of records and those of our family members, where do we go for information? We go to the places where others, either because of interest or duty, have piled up more records. As genealogists we refer to all these places collectively as record repositories. That is, places where the stuff is stored. So what is an archive and what is a library? Is there really a distinction? I must admit that there are some libraries that act as repositories. For example, in the United States, we have a Federal Depository Library Program administered by the U.S. Government Printing Office. Federal Government information is made available for free public use in depository libraries around the country in over 1,200 locations.

When you get right down to it, the distinction between a record repository or archive and library usually revolves around the usage policy. Libraries allow unlimited access to their materials for use in the library or even allow items to be borrowed or checked out. Archives are designed to preserve valuable records and may allow research with restrictions, but almost never allow the items to go out into general circulation. But these two terms overlap, so most libraries have a non-circulating section of valuable, original material they usually refer to as special collections. If you understand this concept, you immediately see the value of digitizing the archives.

The value and skill of any particular researcher increases with his or her ability to find things. Years of experience give the researcher a huge memory of where things can be found. To a non-researcher, this ability appears to be magic. Just as any skilled craftsman seems to do things effortlessly, skilled researchers can call upon skills acquired through years of practice to find things others may not be aware exist. In this sense, researchers live in libraries, archives and repositories. Researching is truly a skill you can only obtain through constant and careful practice.

There is one more level of distinction; that is the level of organization of the repository. Dumping records in the basement or attic may create a repository, but it does not create either a library or an archive. Both of these entities imply organization and cataloging. So the pile of documents in my house might be considered a repository, but it is hardly and archive until I organize and catalog everything.

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