Holdings in archives are often unique, out-of-print, rare, or specialized formats. Most are one-of-a-kind items and they provide documentation of past events from the perspective of participants and first-hand observers. The records and papers are the unselfconscious byproducts of corporate bodies carrying out their functions and responsibilities, and of individuals or families living their lives.
In contrast to the discrete, published items collected by libraries, the objects (usually called "collections") collected by archives are complex bodies of interrelated, unique materials which share a common provenance (creator or origin).
Formats are varied, and may include photographs, audio and visual recordings, and artifacts, as well as paper-based material personal or organizational records such as correspondence, memoranda, diaries, minutes of committee and board meetings, reports, speech and lecture notes, financial records, maps, blueprints, scrapbooks, and newspaper clippings.
Archives usually keep a record of patrons through registration procedures and generally require patrons to work in designated areas (a reading room). Many archives require patrons to place personal belongings in lockers in order theft and/or damage of archival materials. In an attempt to further protect archival materials from damage, many archives may require patrons to wear gloves while handling some materials. In general, archival materials do not circulate.
Patrons usually need to request materials (closed stacks). Retrieving material from stacks may take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, depending on storage arrangements. Time spent waiting for material to be retrieved can often be minimized or eliminated by contacting the archives ahead of time, letting them know what you are interested in, and making an appointment to visit.
Before attempting to copy to any archival materials, inquire about the duplication policies of the archive. Duplication policies greatly differ at each archive. Some are rather restrictive and do not allow self-service copying, while others are more liberal and may even allow patrons to bring in their own scanner or digital camera to make higher resolution copies of their materials.
Generally manuscript materials are not incorporated into an overall subject classification. Instead they remain parts of groupings called "collections," which are formed around the individual, organization, or institution whose activities account for their existence.
Materials are often kept in the original order given to them by their creator.