What is an archive?

An archive is a collection of records. Archival materials are primary materials and are a direct source of information about life and society. They are raw information created in the course of daily life, which can be analyzed and interpreted to help us understand the past. Most institutions, and, in fact, most individuals have an archive of materials which they have created through their day to day activities.

The different between materials in a library and materials in an archive or special collection is that materials in an archive or special collection are unique; they were created at one time for one purpose, and are usually the only copy of something. 

What is a record?

record is any information created in the daily course of life. Records can be administrative paperwork, notes, reports, financial statements, legal paperwork, policies, plans, correspondence, advertisements, drawings, photographs, recordings, ephemera, etc.

Ephemera are objects which were created and intended to be used for a short time, but which have been preserved as part of a collection of records.

What can you find in an archive?

Archives contain a wide variety of materials, such as manuscripts, rare books, diaries, letters, notes, tickets, documents, reports, minutes, registers, maps, photographs, films, digital files, sound recordings, documentaries, etc. 

Each institution is different in how it separates its materials in order to best preserve and manage them. Many institutions have a combined archives and special collections or a combined archives and manuscript collection. Some contain rare book collections or photograph collections. Some have a separate sound archive or moving image archive. Primary materials may be located in different places depending on the institution, but a good place to start looking for them is in the archive.

What is a finding aid?

finding aid is a resource which helps locate materials in an archive collection. Archival materials are not organized by author or topic, but are kept in the order in which they were used. In this way, we can understand how they functioned when they were being used and how the different records relate to one another. Unfortunately, this can make it very difficult to locate relevant records. To help with this, archivists create finding aids which list what is in each archival box. Finding aids give researchers an idea about what kinds of records are in an archive collection, how many records there are, and if they might potentially be relevant. 

Resources at Harvard


Archival materials can be searched for in the library catalog.

How to find?

How to find archival materials in the library catalog:

  • Open HOLLIS, Harvard's library catalog.
  • Above the search bar, there are options for different types of searches. Select Advanced Search
  • An expanded search box will appear. At the top of the search box is the text Search for and options to search the entire system or to limit the search to only materials which Harvard holds. There are also the options to search for reserves or by barcode. Select Library Catalog. This will limit the search to only materials which Harvard holds.
  • In the expanded search box is the text Search Filters. On the right side of the expanded search box is the text Resource Type. This filter limits the search to a specific type of resource, such as books, articles, databases, or archival materials. Click the downward arrow in the box below the text Resource Type and select Archives / Manuscripts
  • Enter a search term for what you are looking for into the search box with the text Enter a search term
  • Select the Search button in the bottom right corner of the expanded search box. 

This search will retrieve materials held in the Harvard University Archives.


HOLLIS Images is the Harvard Library's dedicated image catalog. It includes content from archives, museums, libraries, and other collections throughout Harvard University. 

HOLLIS for Archival Discovery

HOLLIS for Archival Discovery contains collection guides, finding aids, and inventories to help locate archival materials at Harvard.

Repositories of Celtic Materials

National libraries, and most institutions, hold archive collections which contain a wide range of primary materials in many different genres, formats, and media. In addition, many institutions have special collections of materials related to specific organizations, events, or individuals. 


Archive Finder is a current directory which describes over 200,000 collections of primary source material housed in thousands of repositories across the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. ArchiveFinder combines ArchivesUSA, a directory of archives including the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (1959 to 2006), searchable indexing of the National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United States and the National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and descriptions of additional collections and online finding aids.

The National Archives (UK)

The National Archives is a non-ministerial department, and the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, and for England and Wales. It manages over 1,000 years of national documents.

BBC Archive

The BBC has a vast archive of records, recordings, music, photographs, and artifacts.

British Library Archives

The British Library holds a vast collection of ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary manuscript and archive material from around the world. 

National Archives of Ireland

The National Archives of Ireland is the official repository for the state records of Ireland.

National Library of Wales Archives

The Archive collections hold substantial information relating to many Welsh gentry families and their estates and to individuals and families that have played a significant part in the life of Wales.

National Library of Scotland Archives

The first manuscript was acquired by the National Library of Scotland's predecessor, the Advocates Library, in 1683, and since 1925 the Library has been the repository of the major collections of manuscripts and archives, which cover many aspects of the lives, activities and interests of Scots at home and abroad.

British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries, From 1500-1950

The British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries database currently includes the full text of 60,000 pages of letters and diaries of 430 women from Colonial times to 1950. Ultimately over 1000 women's writings will be represented in over 150,000 pages of full text. Biographical information on the writers is also included, as is a bibliography of sources in the database.

Dublin Castle Records, 1798 - 1926

The Dublin Castle administration in Ireland was the government of Ireland under English and later British rule, from the twelfth century until 1922, based at Dublin Castle. Dublin Castle Records, 1798-1926 contains records of the British administration in Ireland prior to 1922, a crucial period which saw the rise of Parnell and the Land War in 1880 through to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. This collection comprises materials from Series CO 904, The National Archives, Kew, UK.

The Angus MacLeod Archive

Digital archive of an important figure in the history of Western Scotland in the twentieth century, much of it in Gaelic.

Carmichael-Watson Collection, University of Edinburgh

Field notebooks and papers of 19th-century Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael, author of “Carmina Gadelica,” important “Celtic Twilight” anthology.

An Drochaid Eadarainn

A collection of songs, stories and folklore in Gaelic. 

Irish National Folklore Collection

This website makes available the magnificent collection of Irish folklore housed at University College, Dublin.