What are Archives?

Young African American students at work at library desks with lamps on each desk. The background is a sepia tone.

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 these documents of 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 moving image and sound recordings. All state governments as well as many local governments, universities, businesses, libraries, and historical societies, maintain archives.

ArchiveGrid, supported by OCLC Research, offers online access to more than two million descriptions of archival items and collections.

Who Uses Archives?

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

Washington, D.C.: City Of Archives

As the national capital, Washington is home to the country's largest concentration of archival collections and repositories. They include:

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution has varied archival collections held in fourteen different units. These holdings measure over 137,000 cubic feet and cover nearly every facet of our nation's past – from the history of the Institution itself to the history of American, African American, and Latin American art, culture, music, and design; science and technology; landscapes and gardens; and native and indigenous world cultures.  Users may search across the Smithsonian's archival resources within the Smithsonian Institution's on-line catalogue Collections Search Center.

National Archives

The National Archives holds millions of records from the 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.

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

Gallaudet University Archives, George Washington University's Special Collections Division, Georgetown University's Special Collections, 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 six thousand members and serves the field through programs in education, research, publication, and advocacy. The Society is a source of information about archival education, local and regional professional associations, and specialists in the archival field.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do Archives Center holdings relate to those of the NMAH?

Collections held in the Archives Center supplement or complement those of other Museum units.  For example, the Archives Center may hold notebooks and patent papers for an inventor’s prototype or model held in another Museum division.  Many archival collections acquired by curatorial divisions in the Museum in the past have been transferred to the Archives Center.  

How is the Archives Center different from the National Archives? What can I expect to find in the Archives Center that I would not find in the National Archives?

The important distinction is that the National Archives' holdings are the retired records of the federal government and its agencies. The Archives Center does not collect original federal records. The Archives Center's strengths are in its collections of advertising history, history of technology and invention, and history of American popular music.

Can I do genealogical (family history) research at the Archives Center?

While a few records in the Archives Center may be of interest to genealogists, other repositories such as the National Archives and state historical societies should be consulted first when searching family histories.

Does the Archives Center hold any military records and records related to the Armed Forces?

While the Archives Center does not hold individual service records, it does have significant collections relating to military history including the Princeton Posters Collection, the General William Hazen Papers, and the Japanese American Documentary Collection.  Use the online catalog to identify additional military history materials.  For information about military artifacts contact the Division of Military History and Diplomacy at (202) 633-3910.  

Are there any artifacts in the Archives Center?

No. The Archives Center collects only documentary and audiovisual materials.

Does the Archives Center accept donations of archival material?

Yes, most of the Archives Center's existing collections have been donated by individuals. However, not everything that is offered is accepted. Interested persons should contact the Archives Center to learn more.