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Archives Department

Guide to the Archives Department of Boston Public Library's Special Collections

What is an archival collection?

An archival collection is a group of materials that documents the activities of an individual, family, or organization. Collections are defined by their provenance and the context of their creation. Their relationship with other records helps us interpret and understand them in relation to history and ourselves.

Typically, archival collections contain personal papers (records created and kept by one person), family papers, or the records of a business or organization. Collections can vary in size from a few pieces of paper to thousands of pages and are frequently made up of material that has never been published.

Images of a letters, a telegram, photographs and negatives,  a broadside, map, notebooks, and pencil sketch of a man in profile.

Archival collections can include anything! In archives you may find:

  • personal or business correspondence
  • photographs
  • legal and financial records
  • diaries and journals
  • scrapbooks
  • published works
  • objects
  • film and sound recordings
  • manuscript and printed music
  • maps
  • architectural drawings
  • digital media

Archival materials are usually stored in acid-free boxes and folders that help us preserve them for future users and make them easier to use in the reading room. 

The term “archives” can be used interchangeably to mean archival materials, collections, and the building where archives are stored and accessed.


Archival research is like following a map to buried treasure. You usually have to do a bit of digging.

What is a finding aid?

A finding aid is a document that describes the contents and arrangement of a specific collection.

Archivists describe archival collections in finding aids, sometimes referred to as collection guides, which include information about provenance (origin or source), the context of creation, and an inventory of what's included in the collection and how it’s organized. Finding aids are similar to the catalog records you use to find books, but while catalog records usually describe one book at a time, finding aids can describe thousands of items in a single collection inventory.

Finding aids also include contextual information about who created the records and their lives, how the collection came to be at the library, decisions made by archivists while organizing the collection, and the collection’s overall organization. Finding aids can be used to describe many different kinds of collections, but they are typically used to describe archival collections.

BPL's finding aids have changed over time; some were created as basic paper inventories, while others were generated electronically. Some BPL finding aids, including legacy description, have been made available online, and we are working to add more all the time.

Explore our finding aids on!

What do archivists do?

Archivists have specialized training to describe and organize archival collections. BPL's archivists are always working to provide access to as many of our collections as possible and help users connect with the collections in their care. This work includes:

  • Accessioning
  • Appraisal
  • Arrangement
  • Description
  • Reference
  • Outreach

When creating finding aids, archivists usually group materials together based on format similarity, such as correspondence, reports, photographs; their relationship to the creator of the collection; or simply by creation date. Archivists often strive to preserve a collection’s “original order” (the order in which the collection was received). By preserving original order, archivists can assure that important historical context is maintained; often, this also means that specific materials are easier to find. Archivists also use finding aids to describe collections at varying levels of detail, which means researchers usually request an individual box or folder, rather than individual items, and then examine the contents to find what they need.

Fanned stack of manuscript pages with visible writing.

Archivists at BPL strive to follow community best practices when it comes to caring for archival collections. If you would like to learn more about archival work, The Society of American Archivists (SAA) has published many helpful resources, including:

Contact us & hours

Connect with BPL Archives staff!
  • Questions about archival collections?
  • Need help navigating
  • Want to help us by suggesting changes to our collection descriptions?

Reach out to BPL Archivists directly at
The Special Collections Reading Room is open for appointments.

To make an appointment to see archival materials in the Special Collections Reading Room, please see the Special Collections: Plan Your Research Visit website.

Archives Department
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116