What are archives?

The Glucksman Library has several online LibGuides relating to the citation of printed material, for instance, Cite it Right (Harvard) and Endnote. However, users are often unsure how to cite unpublished archival material.

This page outlines the main elements to remember when citing archives held in the Special Collections and Archives department.

Lesson outcomes
At the end of this lesson, you will know how to:

  • Improve your note-taking in the reading room so that you can easily refer to material later on
  • Cite the most common forms of unpublished archival material, such as manuscripts, letters and photographs
  • Find further guidance in relation to citing more unusual archival sources
  • Cite rare and early printed works, such as those from the Bolton Library

Related sections

  • What are archives?
  • About rare books and early printing
  • How to handle archives
  • How to read archives
  • How to analyse archives
  • About the research collections
  • How to search the collections
  • How to access the collections
  • The reading room

‘Archive’ vs ‘special’ collections

We all know how central the library is to university life, but you may not know much about the research potential of the collections tucked away in the Special Collections and Archives department at UL. The resources we hold are what’s called ‘unique and distinctive collections’ – we have over 2,000 archive boxes and 40,000 printed works. The oldest item in our care dates from 400AD — that’s almost 2,000 years of history in the storerooms at the Glucksman Library. These collections are made up of either rare, limited or first editions of books, or original unpublished material that can’t be found anywhere else. This primary source material is also known as ‘archival material’.

Because we’re removed from the main library collection, the archive can seem mysterious to students, as well as the general public – you may be unsure of what we do, what we hold and how to access the department, or even if you need ‘special permission’ to come in to us. What we want to do, is to bring the specialised services we offer to a much wider audience.


An archival ‘record’ does not just refer to textual documents — it incorporates a variety of formats, including manuscripts, letters and photographs.

Where do archives come from?
Archive collections come to us from a variety of different sources; they can be made up of papers from local families or estates, records of local businesses, political parties or societies, the personal papers of authors and poets, and so on. These previously ‘unseen’ collections can incorporate anything from medieval manuscripts and maps, to nineteenth century photographs and letters, to VHS tapes from the 80s, and everything in between.

What does an archivist do?

There are lots of different interconnected stages in the archival process — the following is a very brief outline of the types of work an archivist does when dealing with archival collections. For more detailed information on the role and functions of the archive and the archivist, browse our recommended reading list and online sources.

As mentioned above, archive collections come to the archive in a variety of ways. Usually, collections are donated to the archive by a donor, either the creator of the records, or their next of kin.

‘Appraisal’ is the term used to describe the process of how an archivist assesses an item or a collection of items to determine its ‘archival value’ — in other words, how rare or significant the items are, and if they will be of interest to current or future researchers.

An archivist starts by researching the context of the collection to better understand who created these records and why, and what the records add to the narrative we already know about a certain period, event or person — if we’re very lucky, they may even tell us something entirely new about the past.

Archivists then arrange and catalogue the records to make them easily findable.

‘Provenance’ is the term used to describe the process of how an archivist, based on their research about the collection, its donor and its history, begins to reestablish the ‘original order’ of the items, so that they reflect the way they were originally created. Provenance allows archivists to arrange records into categories or ‘series’, so that the context of the records is not lost — arranging records as close to their original order as can be established allows the records to speak for themselves, so that they can be later analysed by researchers. For example, arranging a series of correspondence by author or recipient is much more reflective of the organic context of each letter’s creation, than if all letters in a collection were categories according to topic.

Once the archivist is happy with the initial arrangement of the collection, they begin to catalogue or ‘describe’ the records.

Archival cataloguing has a number of significant differences to the main library catalogue, which uses the Dewey Decimal classification system. This system assigns each volume a decimal number from 000—900 based on its subject matter, author, title and year of publication.

In contrast, archival description is ‘hierarchical’. The codes assigned are usually alphanumerical and reflect the system of arrangement of the collection. This hierarchical approach to cataloguing allows the archivist to capture the complexity of the collection while minimising repetition in their descriptions. More importantly, hierarchical description allows users to search and browse archival collections by context as well as via keywords. The overall collection is described first — who created the records, when they were created, why they are important, how they came to the archive etc. This means that this information does not need to be replicated for each record within the collection. The archivist then moves on the describe the next ‘level’ of the collection, i.e. the series, files and individual files. Archival cataloguing is a very subjective process, and while the general principles are the same, the arrangement and description of each collection will vary according to its extent and its contents.

Archivists all over the world use the same standard for archival description, which is laid out by the International Council on Archives (ICA). Read more about the General International Standard for Archival Description (2000), commonly known as ISAD(G), here, or a brief summary of its most important elements which will help you with understanding and citing archival material.

Preservation and access
We store the records in special storerooms called ‘strongrooms’, which are temperature, humidity and light controlled environments, so we can carefully preserve them for future generations. This is why material cannot be borrowed from the department like the rest of the library – but don’t let that put you off. Ultimately, there’s no point in preserving collections if users cannot access them. Read more about correct handling procedures here.

Ultimately, it is the archivist’s job to tell the wider world what amazing resources we have, so that everyone can access and appreciate them, whether that’s looking at a small selection of material through a physical or online exhibition, or a more in-depth study as part of coursework or in preparation for publication.

‘Outreach’ is the term used to describe the process of how an archivist actively seeks to engage the users of archival collections. Archivists undertake outreach in a variety of ways — curating exhibitions, publishing, creating pamphlets or brochures, writing blogs, or keeping active on social media.