Archives vs. Collections

        The Goucher Library contains both "Special Collections" and "Archives," but to student  researchers  the differences between them may seem unclear.  A collection is something intentionally created, usually by one person or a group of persons with a specific agenda in mind.  The collector may be pursuing an interest in a single author, resulting in the Oberdorfer Twain Collection, the James W. Bright early literature and linguistics collection, and the Burke Austen Collection.  The collector also might be collecting to support research in a particular field, like Chrystelle Trump Bond Music and Dance Collection, which Professor Bond assembled while studying dance history.

        In the cases of both the Burke and Bond collections, however, we find ourselves sliding across the border between a single-topic collection and an archive.  Archives are created when the accumulated materials of a person or organization are preserved and studied.  The contents can be wildly varied, ranging from the contents of a desk drawer to the correspondence of a lifetime.  Organizational archives may be governmental, corporate, or advocacy-related, and typically are "umbrella" storage and study sites that incorporate many sub-archives of their member organizations and people.  The United States' National Archives in Washington D.C., and the Maryland State Archives, are two important local examples.  The Johns Hopkins medical school's Art as Applied to Medicine program, which trains graduate students in medical illustration, has preserved the records of its founder, Max Brödel, a trove of documents and paintings which help explain the history of the school and the practice of medical illustration, which the school pioneered in America.  Several English 241 students with backgrounds in art history, paleography, and German language skills worked to organize, stabilize, and create finding aids for this archive, which is otherwise reserved for study by students enrolled in the program.  Students trained by English/BKS 341 might find similar opportunties awaiting them wherever an important trove of personal evidence needs to be organized, preserved, and made searchable.

        Special collections often present scholars with a more well-organized array of objects because the collectors gave the objects of their interest a coherent structure (e.g., all editions of Jane Austen's works, chronologically arranged by nation of origin).  Even so, special collections often require serious bibliographic research before their contents can be fully accessed and understood.  That study results in preparation of a document or database called a "finding aid" to help later scholars use the collection for research.  The English Short Title Catalog might be considered a vast and important "finding aid" for the study of early, pre-1800 English printed books.  Archives, by definition, accumulate less coherently as the archeological residue of a life or lives, and require extensive reorganization and cataloging before they can be well understood or easily used by scholars.  For instance, a series of scrapbooks kept by early C20 Goucher students offer numerous opportunities for study, including Cassie Brand's (Goucher 2007) study of Mary Keith's collection of "dance cards," the documents used by young women to organize their dance partners for formal balls at places like the Naval Academy.  The same scrapbook might support a completely different line of archival resesarch based on its other types of contents, many of which are plainly visible in the dance-card research images linked above.

        Scrap books and personal papers might be called instances of "intentional archives," but researchers periodically discover unintentionally accumulated archives of considerable value.   A Russian "Avian Archive" from the C19-20 has been discovered during a roof repair of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in Zvenigorod, near Moscow.  Swifts and jackdaws had been picking up scraps of paper to line their nests for nearly two centuries.  This accidental archive is not unlike that created by bindery workers who resused discarded manuscripts, cut into strips or squares, to strengthen the bindings of newer books, whether manucript or print.

        A second archive of complete documents has recently been rediscovered, the C17 unclaimed mail trunk of a Netherlands postmaster comprised of 2600 letters, 600 of which have never been opened.  Until the C20, the recipients of letters, not the senders, paid the postage.  If the recipient died, was otherwise unavailable, or just did not care to pay the postage, the letters would be destroyed or stored, as in this case, until someone was willing to pay the postage due.  If you go to the site linked above, be sure to click on the "Imaging" link to see a CT scan of a sealed stack of letters, and the "Letters" link to click through a series of images of wax seals, individual letters, etc. that have already been opened.