CSWR Resource Guide

A guide to the resources housed at the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections

Archives and Libraries

Libraries and Archives

Libraries and archives play vital roles in scholarly research, but they work in slightly different ways. Scholars and researchers will almost certainly use the services of both kinds of institution as they work on projects, but at different points in the research process and to answer different questions. Differentiating archives and libraries is important because the terms can be somewhat tricky.

The Society of American Archivists' Dictionary of Archives Terminology entry for the word "archives" lists twelve different way the word is used! Usually, however, we only use this word in three ways: to describe the records in an archival collection, to describe the facility where they are stored and managed, and the organization responsible for maintaining those records. 

The word "library" also has multiple meanings. We use it to describe a collection of published materials (that is, the books, DVDs, and other media in a library collection, including digital files), as well as to describe the building or buildings that house those materials. So, at UNM, the library collection is distributed among three different library buildings on the main campus in Albuquerque. To make things even more complicated, the CSWR's collections are housed inside the Zimmerman library building, but are not part of the Zimmerman library collections. Don't worry, it'll all make sense in a minute. 

For a general breakdown of libraries, archives, how they differ, and how they work together, check out the chart below. There is more detailed information in the tabs further along this page. 


Libraries and Archives at a Glance:



House a broad range of published materials including fiction and nonfiction books and periodicals, videos, children's books, etc.

Usually house specialized, unique materials that are typically related to a specific theme, location, period of time, or topic. These materials are typically mostly unpublished and produced in the course of an organization or individual's life and work. 

Intended both for casual and entertainment use as well as historical or academic research.  Generally intended for academic research, but also sometimes used for genealogical research or other personal projects. 
Items in the collection are usually relatively easily replaceable - patrons are allowed to check out items and watch/read them at home, or elsewhere. 

Since the objects in archival collections are usually fragile, old, unique, or all of the above, patrons are typically not allowed to check items out. In some cases, archives may have made some objects and collections available digitally. Some archives also house potentially sensitive or contentious material. 

Generally open to the public at least some of the time, usually without special considerations or permission. If there is some sort of access control, members of the public will still typically have access to the library collections during regular business hours. Many archives are open to the the public at least some of the time, but will almost universally require some form of security check, even if only presenting a university ID to check in. Some archives have very strict access, usage, and publication restrictions. 

Example: A well-stocked library will have copies (maybe multiple copies) of published works for patrons to read. For example, an academic library will probably have copies of the novels and books Stephen King has written, as well as academic books about Stephen King's work by other writers and academics.

Basically: a library will collect the finished and published materials that Stephen King produced, as well as other finished works about Stephen King. Patrons could go to a different library and find many of the same resources, or buy copies of the resources in question. 

Example: An archive will collect the personal papers and other materials that Stephen King produced over the course of his life. These might include early drafts of his novels, manuscripts that remained unpublished, correspondence with publishers, etc. It might also include first editions or signed copies of King's novels that were in his possession. These items are not replaceable. 

Basically: an archive will collect the personal papers, correspondence, and other "stuff" that Stephen King produced over the course of his life, including early drafts of novels, letters from publishers and fans, unpublished manuscripts, financial records, etc. (To put it a different way, an archive will want to preserve all the stuff that Stephen King himself might think of as "junk" taking up space in his garage!)

Library and Archive organization:

Libraries and archives are not organized in the same way. For a quick overview, see the chart below. For more in-depth information, continue to the next two tabs on this page. 

Institution Basic unit of organization Details
Libraries Call number 

Individual items in library collections will be assigned call numbers, while archival collections will be assigned identifiers. In the case of a call number, it is applied to a single item or series of items with the same title (like a magazine or periodical), meaning that anyone who knows the call number can go straight to the item and pull it from the shelf. (Museums also typically assign unique numbers or codes to individual objects.)

Archives Collection identifier

An identifier used in an archival collection is slightly different. Identifiers serve as unique indicators at the level of collections, rather than singular objects. That is, there could be many, many boxes in a collection that all have the same identifier, while only one volume or object in a library will have any given call number. Archival collections all bearing the same identifier can be further broken down into box number, folder number in that box, and (in some cases) individual items in that folder.

This will likely be the case even in the event that an archival collection only contains one item. For example, the William McKendree Fisher Notebook (MSS-201-SC) at the CSWR is identified as a collection, even though that collection only consists of one object: an exercise book from 1831 covering basic mathematical topics. 


Libraries In Depth

Unless they specialize in a particular field, libraries will generally seek to acquire and maintain a broad range of materials in their collections. Think of a public library, for example. There you might find Stephen King's latest novel, cookbooks, DVDs of children's movies, how-to guides for home repair or fly-fishing, government records, and tax documents, among other things. You might think of a library as a kind of all-purpose resource. Items held in library collections are usually not one-of-a-kind or irreplaceable, even if they are old, and most libraries allow patrons to check materials out and read/watch them at home or elsewhere. University libraries will differ from public libraries in that the former tend to collect more materials directly related to scholarly research, but most will still have collections of fiction and other entertainment. Many university libraries also offer public computers to use and workshops focusing on conducting research, using library tools, and other aspects of academic research.

Most importantly, in distinguishing libraries from archives, libraries collect and make available published work. Patrons can check out the finished product, but not the first draft. 

General Characteristics of Public and University Libraries:

Collect a variety of published resources, including fiction and non-fiction books, videos, etc. Often have a separate section for children's materials

Collections are broad and usually not highly specialized, but there are some exceptions such as medical and law libraries. Items in any one library will likely overlap substantially with the collection of another library of similar size and type (e.g. two public libraries in neighboring cities of about the same population). 

Libraries sometimes offer services like computers for public use, blank tax documents, events for children, etc. Some public libraries also have rooms groups can use for meetings.  

Items in the collection may be old, but will usually not be irreplaceable. Library staff will replace items as they wear out. Some libraries have so-called Special Collections (the New York Public Library has Charles Dicken's desk, for example) but these are cataloged and managed differently than materials made available for public use.  

Patrons are allowed to check out materials (at least in some cases) and remove them from the library building temporarily. Usually this requires having a library card or being a student, faculty, or staff at the university in the case of a university library. 

Hours of operation usually include weekends and evenings. University libraries will typically close during university-wide closures, and public libraries will close on federal holidays. Patrons should check operating hours ahead of visiting either way (and be sure to ask about parking!)


Library Organization Details:

Each item in the collection has a unique call number and is described in the library catalog. The call number will follow a system like the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal system, allowing volumes on the same topic to be shelved together.

Periodicals will have one call number, with volume and issue indicated at the end of the call number. 
Example of a call number: 

 B3313 .Z713 2013

This call number refers to Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, translated by Michael A. Scarpitti, at the UNM Zimmerman library.

In libraries, each item that the library owns is assigned a unique call number that serves to find that item as well as ensure that it is organized and shelved alongside other items dealing with related topics. Each item in a library catalog is also described in the catalog, giving patrons relevant information like title, author, publisher and publication date, ISBN, size and page count, topics, etc. 

NOTE: Libraries assign call numbers to individual items (periodicals will have one call number with volume and issue numbers added). Archives, on the other hand, assign identifiers to collections. For more information, check out the next tab!

For more information about using the UNM library's services, check out this handy guide: https://libguides.unm.edu/c.php?g=1040495&p=7546123 

For more information on call numbers and how they work, check out this guide from the University of Louisville: https://library.louisville.edu/call-numbers 

Archives In Depth

Archives differ from libraries in several ways. First, archives do not strive to maintain general or universal collections. Rather, archival repositories typically focus their collections interests in one or a few areas. These areas might be topical, geographically defined, or thematic. For example, the CSWR specializes in materials relating to the American Southwest and Central and South America, with a particular emphasis on the state of New Mexico. Archives and special collections at other institutions might specialize in different fields and themes. University archives often have collections strengths related to the city, state, or region where the university is located. Second, archives collect predominantly unpublished materials produced by institutions, organizations, families or individuals over the course of their regular business. That is, while a library would make a published novel available to patrons to check out, an archives would house the early drafts of that novel as well as correspondence with publishers, contracts, etc. that would usually not be originally intended for public consumption.

Unlike libraries, where patrons are likely to find substantial overlap in collections, individual archival collections will usually not overlap because the materials they house are one of a kind or very rare. That said, elements of an individual's, a family's, or an organization's collection might be spread out across different repositories. This is especially likely in the case of a prominent figure who lived in different parts of the country at different times in their life. Archival repositories generally do not allow patrons to check out materials and consult them at home. Rather, archives make material accessible in a reading room: a designated, secure space where archive staff bring patrons the materials they request. In some cases, archives require researchers using some materials to use special tools or equipment such as gloves, or limit their time working with materials in the interest of preservation. Modern archives are also involved in digitizing materials in their collections both to help preserve originals by limiting their handling, and to make their collections more widely available online. 


General Characteristics of Archives:

Collections are typically specialized and limited to materials relating to a particular place, theme, topic, or discipline - these materials were produced during the normal course of business by an individual, organization, family, etc. and are mostly unpublished. Archival collections usually include items that are unique. For example, the CSWR has several collections of material on D. H. Lawrence, the English modernist writer. One item in the collection is the guest book from the Lawrence's ranch in Taos, N.M., which is one of a kind. 
Archives patrons typically do not pull materials from the shelves themselves, but rather request them using a special form. The requested materials are then brought to the patron to consult. Patrons typically do not enter areas where archival materials are stored, unlike libraries where patrons can simply pull what they need from the shelves.

Unlike libraries, archives do not allow patrons to check out or remove materials from the building in which the archive is housed.

(Note that in some cases archives will loan items for exhibition, but this requires significant paperwork and planning. At the level of day-to-day operations, archives usually do not allow materials to be checked out to individuals.)

Typically patrons in archives will consult the materials they request in a reading room, a secure room designated for the use of archival materials.

Archival Collections Organization Details

Each collection has a unique identifier. When requesting archival materials, patrons will indicate the collection number as well as the number of the box, folder, etc. that further organizes the collection. 

Example from the CSWR: MSS-898-BC, box 1, folder 5

Collection: Maclovia Sanchez de Zamora papers 

Box: 1, Folder: 5: Ephemera, circa 1990s

(At the CSWR, patrons only need to include the collection identifier and box number(s) on the form when requesting items. They should, however, still keep track of the relevant folder numbers for once the boxes have been brought up by archival staff.)

Divisions within each collection, like series and sub-series, are identified and described in the finding aid but do not receive their own identifiers. 

Individual items in archival collections are not assigned their own identifiers, and individual items inside folders are typically not described, especially in modern archival practice. 

For more information on the organization and use of archives, take a look at the Archival Research Introduction page.