Basics of archives and special collections


Basics of archives and special collections


Housed in The Fairfax County Public Library's Virginia Room are maps, an extensive photographic archive, local newspapers, rare books, genealogical resources, and manuscript collections. An example of a manuscript collection is the John M. Sherwood Collection. It is a collection of photographs, artifacts, letters, as well as personal and business ephemera that John Sherwood and his family collected during their lifetimes. The materials have been put into archival folders and boxes and are housed in a special climate controlled area in the library to insure that they survive well into the future to provide evidence of a family’s personal and business development in Fairfax, Virginia in the 20th century.

Archival materials are primary sources created in the course of everyday life. They are kept as evidence of actions for future research and study. Materials contained within the John M. Sherwood Collection come in many forms. The following are a few of the most commonly found types of archival materials:

Audio-Visual materials
Sheet music
Architectural drawings
Realia or artifacts


Formats of archival materials in the John M. Sherwood Collection:

Photographs - Photographs give us a window into how past generations lived and worked. They bring events that have been previously written about to life. Having information on the photographer and when and where the photograph was taken dramatically increases the context and historical knowledge an image can provide.

Correspondence - Examples of correspondence are letters, telegrams, email messages, and other written communications between people. Depending on the chosen medium, correspondence can be lengthy, or consist of short bursts of information.

Ephemera - Often thrown away after a short period of time, ephemera is matter not intended to be kept, such as ticket stubs, receipts and promotional material.

Publications - Publications such as books, magazines, newspapers, journals and other periodicals are often found in archival collections and can provide an idea of how people were reacting to events in the past.

Realia or artifacts are three-dimensional objects. Clothing, coins, medals, trophies, tools, sculpture and signs are just a few of the things in this category.


Arrangement and Description

Archival materials gain meaning based on arrangement and context. Archivists strive to preserve the original order of materials but sometimes collections arrive at the archive not in any order. It is then the job of the archivist to sort the collection and give it an arrangement. Collections are often arranged chronologically, alphabetically, or by subject. The John M. Sherwood Collection is arranged chronologically and by family member as well as by material type. Archivist may try to keep all of the business papers, letters, and ephemera associated with a person grouped together rather then separate each type of material, but every collection is unique and can be arranged many different ways.

Once a collection is arranged, it must be described. The process of describing a collection includes creating a list or a finding aid detailing the contents. Some collections are quite large and it is therefore impossible to describe every item. It is for this reason that archivists will often describe collections at the folder level or the box level. Once the items have been physically arranged, and listed in a finding aid, it is then possible for the collections to be accessed by researchers, or used in an exhibit like this one.

Collection Items

John M. Sherwood exhibit display
The John M. Sherwood: Exploring Fairfax through Family Papers exhibit display at the Fairfax Public Library Virginia Room in Fairfax, VA.
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