Linda Clyde | Jun 30, 2017

Archival Terminology for Beginners

This is first in a three-part series that offers tips and tricks to those who are ready to move beyond online research. Read part two.

Did you know that many genealogists estimate that only 15 percent of the world’s records can be found online? So where is the other 85 percent? A large portion of records that can’t be defined as “easy access” can be found in non-digital archives all over the world. Searching these records can be an intimidating endeavor for the fair-weather genealogist, but digging around for informational treasures in the archives of the world is an exciting job for those who are ready to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty, and endure occasional rainy-day disappointments. The silver lining of this potentially overwhelming approach to genealogy research is that incredible discoveries are often just waiting to be found.

According to D. Joshua Taylor, president of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society and popular presenter at the 2017 RootsTech conference, “the things that you can uncover in some of these materials—they’re staggering.” Instead of just names, dates, and locations, you’ll be discovering things like ballad songs, rhymes, games, personal letters, private papers, and fascinating details about your ancestors and those who interacted with them.

If you’re ready to add archive research to the more basic research done on popular online sites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch, FindMyPast, and MyHeritage, it can be extremely helpful to brush up on archival terminology.

Learning the Lingo

Did you know that entire glossaries exist that define terms used by professional archivists? Knowing the common terms and meanings can help you find what you’re looking for faster. A great place to review some of this basic terminology online is at the Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) of the United States National Archives. Here you’ll find a glossary for beginners. You can search for specific terms on the Society of American Archivists website or download a PDF version of the society’s glossary.

Archivists take terminology seriously. Since World War II, archivists around the world have devoted considerable time and attention to defining these terms, and an international lexicon of archival terminology was published in 1964. After years of drafts, debates, and reviews, the Society of American Archivists published its own glossary in 1974. This glossary is continually revised and updated. And although it has provided a common lingo for the professional and amateur archivist, the ALIC declares that “no single glossary of archival terms can be considered definitive.”

Common Terms

The most common archival terms describe the materials themselves and the institutions that house them. Knowing the difference between terms can be very helpful as you get started looking through archives. For example, do you know if there’s a difference between an archive and a manuscript repository? What about the differences between records, personal papers, and artificial collections?

According to the ALIC, “Archival institutions can be termed either ‘archives’ or ‘manuscript repositories’ depending on the types of documentary material they contain and how it is acquired.”


Records are documents in any form that are made or received and maintained by an organization, whether government agency, church, business, university, or other institution. An organization’s records typically might include copies of letters, memoranda, accounts, reports, photographs, and other materials produced by the organization as well as incoming letters, reports received, memoranda from other offices, and other documents maintained in the organization’s files.

“In contrast to records, personal papers are created or received and maintained by an individual or family in the process of living. Diaries, news clippings, personal financial records, photographs, correspondence received, and copies of letters written and sent by the individual or family are among the materials typically found in personal papers. … 

Artificial collections are fundamentally different both from records and from personal papers. Instead of being natural accumulations, artificial collections are composed of individual items purposefully assembled from a variety of sources. Because artificial collections comprise documents from many sources, archivists may elect to change established relationships in order to improve access or control.”

The Right Questions and the Right Terms

Most are familiar with terms like archive, repository, and catalog, but it’s a good idea to make sure we’re using them in the way most familiar to others before we start making phone calls and visits, or writing emails and letters to professionals requesting information or access to a particular collection. By learning the archivist lingo, you’ll be better prepared to communicate your needs and understand what is being communicated to you.

Before you know it you’ll be using finding aids like a pro, scouring local and digital libraries, discovering manuscripts, and asking the right questions using all the right terms.

How do you keep your archival terminology up to date? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to join the conversation.

Linda Clyde

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