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What is a Digital Archive?

Digital archive, virtual library, online collection, archival databases, digital repository--these web-based collections of digitized primary materials bare many names and are composed of  diverse sources and formats. Commonly created with the  aims of preserving vulnerable historical records and expanding researchers' access to them, digital archives have become increasingly essential tools for teaching and research in response to widespread travel restrictions that inhibit access to their physical counterparts.

The types of digitized materials found in digital archives vary greatly and can include letters, diaries, magazines, news papers, photographs, legal documents, government records, ephemera (such as posters, pamphlets, and sketches), and even websites. 


Evaluation - Who Creates Digital Archives?

As with any source used for research, it is important to evaluate the legitimacy of digital archives. An important first step in doing so involves an awareness of who has created and/or compiled the archive, and to what end. This "who" often falls into one of three groups:

1) Institutions

Universities, museums, libraries, government agencies, cultural heritage organizations, and physical archives are among the types of institutions that create digital archives, often making them available for free. The Library of Congress, for instance, has digitized many of its collections, such as the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature:


Screenshot image of the Library of Congress website depicting information about their "Archive of Recorded Poetry" collection.


2) Publishers/For-Profit Businesses 

Digital Archives are also frequently compiled by educational publishers and other for-profit businesses. These institutions digitize materials from one or more physical archive and charge fees, either for outright purchase or for subscriptions. Businesses like, for instance, will generally market its digital content to individuals, while publishers who develop more expansive and expensive collections typically sell only to libraries. An example of this type of archive is ProQuest History Vault, to which Penn Library subscribes: 

Screenshot image of the ProQuest History Vault website homepage.


3) Individuals, Small Groups, and/or Non-profit Organizations

Digital archives can also be created by individuals or small groups who share a particular interest and wish to showcase their research digitally. These tend to be available for free, as is the case with Antietam on the Web:

Screenshot image of the Antietam on the Web website homepage.


An extra degree of awareness and caution should be exercised when using digital archives produced by individuals or small groups. Although these may contain very useful materials, they generally do not undergo the rigorous review process that is customary for institutional archives. As a result, they can be unreliable, biased, or otherwise inadequate for serious research. [*This statement is not intended to pass judgement on the sample archive presented above*] 


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Mayelin Perez
Van Pelt Library, 215

Selected Notable Digital Archives for American Literature

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