Skip to Main Content

Rare Books and Manuscripts Department

Find Archives

Boston Public Library Archival and Manuscript Finding Aid Database

At the link above, you will see essential information about collections, including titles, dates, general summaries, and detailed descriptions of contents

  • Open up the Arrangement, Administrative/Biographical History, and Subjects sections to learn more
  • To view an inventory of the collection contents, with box and folder information, click on Detailed Description
  • You can also see digitized items available in Digital Commonwealth by clicking on On-line Images/Records

For help navigating through BPL finding aids, please feel free to contact us directly.

Archives Explained

Archives are collections of “records created or received by a person, family, or organization and preserved because of their continuing value.”[1]

Archives are defined by their provenance (origin or source) and the context of their creation. Their relationship with other records is key in interpreting and understanding them in relation to history and ourselves.

Archival records can include anything!

In archives you can find:

  • Personal or business correspondence
  • Diaries and journals
  • Legal and financial records
  • Published works
  • Photographs
  • Maps
  • Architectural drawings
  • Manuscript and printed music
  • Film and sound recordings
  • Digital media
  • Physical objects

Archives can be large and complex

To help researchers find individual items, we describe archives in finding aids, which are similar to catalog records. But while catalog records usually describe individual items, like books, finding aids include detailed inventories of a collection's contents. In addition, finding aids usually include contextual information about provenance, the lives of creators, and overall organization.

Finding aids describe collections at varying levels of detail

Finding aids describe collections at varying levels of detail. This means researchers usually request an individual box or folder, then examine the contents to find what they need. Archival research is like following a map to buried treasure! You usually have to do a bit of digging. 

[1] Dictionary of Archives Terminology, s.v. "archives," accessed November 28, 2020

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a document that describes the contents and arrangement of a specific collection. Finding aids typically group materials together based on similarity of format, their relationship to the creator of the collection, or simply by date of creation. Finding aids can be used to describe many different kinds of collections, but they are typically used to describe archival collections.

What is an archival collection?

An archival collection is a group of materials that documents the activities of a specific individual, family, or organization. Typically, archival collections contain personal papers or the records of a business or other organization.

Archivists, who organize and describe archival collections, strive to preserve the “original order” of the materials they work with. By preserving original order, archivists can assure that important historical context is maintained; often, this also means that specific materials are easier to find.

BPL's finding aids have changed over time; some were created as basic paper inventories, while others were generated electronically. BPL finding aids that have been made available online can be accessed through the Boston Public Library Archival and Manuscript Finding Aid Database.

Contact & Reading Room Hours

Contact us!

Rare Books and Manuscript Department
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston St
Boston, MA 02116

Reading Room Hours:


  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday: Closed
  • Wednesday: 9:30-4:30
  • Thursday: 9:30-4:30
  • Friday: 9:30-4:30
  • Saturday- Sunday: Closed