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Archives and Special Collections

The Archives of Biddle Law Library preserves, promotes, and provides access to the archives of The American Law Institute (ALI), and the National Bankruptcy Archives (NBA), as well as a collection of rare books, manuscripts, and Penn Law historic records.

**Beginning 3/12/2020 Biddle Archives is canceling all on-site research visits until further notice and will have limited availability for remote research requests.

Background Information

What is an archives?

An archives is a repository that houses materials of enduring value. Similar terms you might have heard include the singular “archive,” “manuscript repository,” or “records center.”

What’s in an archives?

Archives can contain any unit of enduring historical, research, or evidentiary value. These items include letters, memoranda, photographs, meeting minutes, publications, and organizational material.

What’s in Biddle’s archives?

The Archives of the Biddle Law Library contains a mixture of personal papers (also referred to as “manuscript collections”) and organizational records. 

How are archives organized?

Unlike traditional reference and circulating collections, archival collections usually consist of unpublished material. Furthemore, most of this material is unbound and has not been indexed. For these reasons, organization of archives can very greatly from collection to collection, depending on the organizational behaviors of those people who maintained the collections prior to donating them to the archives. 

How are archives housed?

Due to the likelihood of loose leaf papers, archival collections are generally contained in file folders. File folders are placed into boxes.

How are archives described?

Identifying each and every letter in an archival collection is both time-consuming and counterintuitive to the part-to-whole relationship of archival collections. Therefore, archival materials are generally grouped according to broader categories called “series.” For example, one series in a collection might be “Correspondence,” while another series in the same collection might be “Meetings,” and so forth. Series can be divided into “subseries,” too; for example, the “Correspondence” series may include the subseries “Personal” and “Professional.” Series are grouped based on anticipated relevance to the researcher.

Where to Search

Where to find archival collections at the Biddle Law Library: ​

  • ​Rarebooks and the Trent Collection
    • The rare books and the Trent collection can be found within the Biddle Library catalog LOLA​.
  • Archival collections can be searched via Penn's online catalog of finding aids.
    • ​If you choose to do a keyword search, it will include collection's outside of the Biddle Law Library. ​​
  • Oral histories can be found on the Biddle Library Archives and Special Collections website, through the NBA collection page, the ALI collection page, or the Legal Oral Histories Project page.

How to do Research in an Archives

Archival research generally follows the process of traditional historical research methods. Requests are made to the archivist, who retrieves materials and presents them to the researcher. The researcher sits down at the table with a box and proceeds to comb through folders, identifying items of relevance. At the end of the session, the archivist and the researcher discuss photocopying requests if necessary.

Why should I conduct research at an archives?

Virtually all substantial historical scholarship has come from the use of primary, or archival, materials. While the consultation of journals, treatises, and mongraphs provides much useful information, those organs are essentially interpretations of the historical record. Any researcher who is serious about making a substantial contribution to the realm of academic scholarship should consider consulting archival materials in an effort to present a fresh interpretation of past events.

How to Use a Finding Aid

Using a finding aid is your first step to accessing an archival collection. Finding aids are essentially "road maps" to a collection, in other words, they provide you with the necessary information for identifying collections or parts of a collection that are relevant to your research. 

Steps for using a finding aid:

  1. Read the abstract, the scope and contents, and the biographical or administrative history to get a sense of what is in the collection.
  2. Note any restrictions on the collection.
  3. Look at the inventory list.
  4. Write down the box numbers, folder numbers, and series numbers you would like to see.
  5. Note whether the collection is part of the National Bankruptcy Archives, American Law Institute, Manuscripts, or Penn Law Historic Records.
  6. Email the Biddle Archives Department to make an appointment or if you have any questions about the archival finding aid or the collection it refers to.