Welcome! ‘Unlocking the Archives’ is a blog dedicated to the Virginia Room archives. It is my hope that ‘Unlocking the Archives’ posts inform and educate readers about the Virginia Room, archives in general, and (on occasion) provide practical tips and techniques for caring for and preserving your own materials.
Since this is the first blog I have written for the Virginia Room, it seems appropriate to define archives. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) defines ‘archives’ as follows:
(also archive), n. ~ 1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. – 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization’s records of enduring value. – 3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. – 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. – 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. – 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.
As defined here and depending on how the term is used, ‘archives’ can apply to the materials themselves, the department of an organization where such materials are kept, an institution that collects materials or the physical building itself. Archives exist in many types of institutions; colleges and universities, government agencies, libraries, historical societies, museums and even corporations.
I’m sure many of the readers of this blog have visited the Virginia Room and (probably) other archives. The Virginia Room acts as the City of Roanoke’s unofficial archives, collecting not only materials related to the history of the city, but also the valley, the state and beyond. In addition to historical information, the Virginia Room houses the largest collection of genealogical materials in Southwest Virginia.
I recently learned that a long-time user of the Virginia Room had no idea that we have an archives. This person was under the impression that the Virginia Room functions more like a reference library with books, periodicals, microfilm and access to databases. While this is certainly true of the Virginia Room, there is much more to discover. Because we realize that some people are not aware of the archival holdings of the Virginia Room, I wish to share a little more about what is available in the Virginia Room and how it can be accessed.
Often, researchers of history and genealogy devote years to research to satisfy their own curiosities without any desire to publish their findings. But what happens to all of their notes, information, records, all of the material they may have uncovered in their research when they are finished? Well, (I hope) they find a new home for the material in an institution that can preserve it and make it accessible to other individuals with similar research interests. Much of what is included in the Virginia Room’s archives resulted from this very thing. There are numerous genealogical and historical collections in the Virginia Room’s ‘Special Collections’ area. These materials are not in the library catalog and cannot be physically browsed; however, they are certainly accessible. Such collections are stored in a climate-controlled room (even colder than the Virginia Room itself!) that helps maintain a constant temperature and humidity in an effort to promote the stability and longevity of the items. Since these collections are one-of-a-kind, unpublished materials, it is the responsibility of the archives to preserve them. ‘So if they’re locked away, how can I access them?’ The answer: finding aids. A finding aid is essentially a description of the materials included in a collection, which often contains information on why they exist, who created them and how they are arranged to help users understand the materials and gain access to them. Virginia Room finding aids are available via the Virginia Room Digital Collection at www.virginiaroom.org/digital . From here, you can ‘Browse Collections’ and search for ‘Finding Aids and Indexes’. This will generate a list of Virginia Room finding aids. Never fear, if you prefer to look at hard copies of the finding aids, they are available in the Virginia Room. Here is a link to one of our finding aids: http://www.virginiaroom.org/digital/files/original/13/2043/BaileyCollection.pdf
So you’ve looked at finding aids and realize there are materials within a collection that you would like to see, now what? Virginia Room staff is happy to pull the materials for you to use. Still have questions? Remember, the only dumb question is the one not asked, so let Virginia Room staff know how we can help!
Be sure to check back for future posts that will provide a deeper dive into the archives and highlight some of the Virginia Room’s hidden gems.