New to Archives?
First time researchers sometimes find archives daunting. Don't let that stop you! UTSA has friendly archivists who are ready to help you with your research and answer questions.
The Society of American Archivists website also has a helpful guide for getting started with archives:
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an archive? Is it the same thing as Special Collections?
The word "archive" is used in different ways. When written with a lowercase "a," it can refer to the building where archival records are kept. It can also refer to the records themselves. When written with an uppercase "A" it usually refers to an organization. For example, the National Archives and Records Administration, or the Coca-Cola Corporate Archives.
The term "special collections" is a broader term, often used by universities to encompass archives and rare books. The terms "archives" and "special collections" can often be used interchangeably, as is done throughout this guide. However, Archives that are not affiliated with a university generally do not use the term "special collections."
What are primary sources, and how are they connected to archives?
Archival collections are usually made up of primary sources. Primary sources are records that provide first-hand testimony or evidence of an event, action, topic, or time period. Primary sources are usually created by individuals who directly experience an event or topic, and record their experience through photographs, videos, memoirs, correspondence, oral histories, or autobiographies.
Please see UTSA's guide on Primary Sources for more detailed information.
What is a collection guide (finding aid), and how do I use it?
Finding aids, also known as collection guides, are descriptive inventories of archival collections. Archival collections are stored in secured areas because they are often unique and irreplacable, and researchers are usually not allowed to browse collections in these areas. Therefore, Archivists make finding aids available to the public so that researchers can see what is in each collection.
All of UTSA's finding aids are available online. Please consult this guide from Purdue University (link below) to learn how to read a finding aid.
How are archives similar/different from libraries or museums?
Archives are like a library because you can visit one to do research and gain new information. An Archivist, like a Librarian, can help you find what you are looking for. Also, archives are often located within libraries. However, archives hold unique items that do not circulate (cannot be borrowed). These items are usually original, unique items that are historical in nature, and are not published in multiple copies like books are. You can visit different libraries and find copies of the same book, but no two archives will have the exact same collections.
The uniqueness of archival materials makes them similar to museums. Museums and archives both contain rare, historical, and often irreplaceable items that cannot be borrowed and taken home. Sometimes, archives will exhibit items from their collections, like a museum does. However, museums tend to have 3-D objects like archeological artifacts, or fine art. Archives tend to hold records, such as paper documents and audiovisual materials.
What all three have in common is that they offer rich resources that are made available to people for research and learning.
What kinds of things does UTSA have in their archives?
Collections include papers, photographs, audiovisual recordings, digital records, and archived websites documenting the history of women and gender in Texas, Mexican-American activism, African-American and LGBTQ regional communities, the Tex-Mex food industry, and San Antonio history and urban development. Special Collections also maintains University Archives, which document the history of UTSA, and Rare Books, which include our Mexican Cookbook Collection.
To learn more about our collections, please explore the featured collections on our website, or browse through our collection guides.
Where does UTSA Special Collections get all these records?
Usually, people are kind and generous enough to donate records to us. People often donate records because they believe their family or organization's records are important historical documents that need to be preserved for future generations to see. While this is not true for all records, Special Collections works with donors to help identify which records might be of historic significance.
What are rare books?
While there is no universal definition of what constitutes a rare book, it may be thought of broadly as a book with high intrinsic or research value that would be difficult to replace. Factors of age, fragility, scarcity, research value, or unique characteristics may bring books into Special Collections. UTSA Special Collections' Rare Books contain published materials emphasizing the history and development of the Texas-Mexico border region in general and the people, history, art, life, and literature of San Antonio and South Texas in particular. For more information about Rare Books, please visit our website:
What does an Archivist do? And how do you become an Archivist?
Archivists do many, many different things, and there are many different types of archivists with different roles. Some common job duties include:
- Organizing the materials in collections and creating a descriptive inventory of the items (a finding aid)
- Helping students and researchers use finding aids to find information relevant to their research topic
- Preserving materials for the future, including monitoring storage conditions to make sure that temperature and humidity are at optimal levels, and repairing damaged items
- Working with donors to bring in new collections
- Engaging in outreach efforts to advertise the archives and promote their use
- Educating others about what archives are, what kind of collections are available, and to teach people how to locate information in the archives
- Creating exhibits featuring items from their collections
- Digitizing and describing archival collections to make them available online
- Supervising student workers or community volunteers, or other employees who help support their work
The vast majority of job postings for Archivists require a graduate degree, usually in Library and Information Studies with a special concentration in Archives. Before graduate school, many archivists pursue bachelor's degrees in the liberal arts, such as history, English, a foreign language, or anthropology. Some obtain degrees in fine arts or music. Essentially any undergraduate degree is acceptable, as long as it is completed. Volunteer work and internships in archives are typically used to build experience before beginning a professional career in Archives.
Why can't I borrow archival materials to take home?
Our archival collections and rare books are unique, and are usually irreplaceable. These items are available to you for research in our reading room, but the collections are considered too historically valuable to risk them becoming accidentally damaged or lost. It is important that we keep the collections secure so that they are available for future generations of researchers.
Can I look at everything online?
No. Special Collections is constantly working to digitize collections and make them available online, but only a small fraction of our collections are available to view online. This is for several reasons:
- We digitize, describe, and put everything online ourselves (mostly). This requires a massive time and resource commitment, and we are a relatively small staff. Plus, we must balance digitization with other work projects.
- It takes up a lot of space. If we did digitize everything, we would still not have enough hard drive/server space to hold all the files. Additionally, we do not have the funding to purchase additional digital storage space that this would require.
- The process of digitizing, describing, and putting material online is slow. Even with infinite resources, it would take many years to do it all.
- In a few cases, we do not hold copyright to the material. To avoid copyright violation, we avoid digitizing these items (this is rare)
While we can only provide online access to a small fraction of our total holdings, we are committed to selecting material for digitization that will increase the availability of our most heavily used collections, promote those with high research value, or aid in reducing wear and tear to our most fragile collections.
Why do I need to make an appointment to use most of the archival materials?
Our archival collections and rare books are housed in secure locations that are only accessible to Special Collections staff. This is because they are rare, fragile, unique, and/or irreplaceable. These items are available to you for research, but we need to know which materials you would like to see in advance so that we have enough time to retrieve them for you. If you need help determining which materials you would like to see during your appointment, please contact us.
Can you help me with family history/genealogy research?
While there are resources in UTSA Special Collections that may occasionally prove useful for conducting genealogical research, our primary focus is not genealogical records. Generally, birth, death, and marriage records are found at county clerk/city clerk offices and county courthouses. Baptismal records and marriage records can also be found at church archives. Please see this list of local organizations for further help in conducting family history searches:
Can you tell me how much something is worth?
Archivists do not provide monetary appraisals. If you need to have an item appraised for its monetary value, you may search for an Appraiser through the American Society of Appraisers. We can, however, tell you whether something has enduring value - whether or not it is historically important.
What do you do with electronic records?
Most records created today are considered "born-digital" since they were created digitally and never existed on paper or other analog media. UTSA Special Collections collects records regardless of format. This is because records created digitally can have historical significance just as paper and other analog records can.
The Community Alliance for a United San Antonio Records (CAUSA) is an example of a born-digital collection in our archives:
We receive digital records in a variety of ways: on CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, flash drives, external hard drives, zip drives, and other formats. Sometimes these items are tucked into boxes of paper records. Sometimes we work with a donor to transfer files to us directly. We also create our own digital files by digitizing records that were originally on paper or another analog media format. Finally, we archive websites so that people can see what the website looked like in the past and how it has changed over time.
As an example, we have an extensive collection of Tejano/Conjunto Music Websites:
It is important to realize that digital records are extremely vulnerable. They are prone to file corruption, format obsolescence, and accidental deletion. Because of this, UTSA Special Collections has a Digital Archivist on staff and actively engages in digital preservation efforts for our digitized and born-digital records.
Have a question about archives that you don't see listed here? Ask us!