Frequently Asked Questions - Archives

According to the Society of American Archivists, archives are collections of “permanently valuable records—such as letters, reports, accounts, minute books, draft and final manuscripts, and photographs—of people, businesses, and government. These records are kept because they have continuing value to the creating agency and to other potential users. They are the documentary evidence of past events. They are the facts we use to interpret and understand history.”

The word “archives” can also refer to an organization that preserves such records, or the physical building or office where these records are held.

We preserve and make accessible materials documenting the hospital’s history. Our mission is to:

  • Serve the interests of the MGH by organizing, preserving, and providing access to its historically significant records in a responsible manner according to established guidelines
  • Serve the information needs of the MGH administration and advance knowledge in the health fields by making historical information available to scholars outside the MGH
  • Publicize the MGH’s history of accomplishments in health care, research and social responsibility through publications, exhibits, tours and other means

The MGH Archives houses official records of the Massachusetts General Hospital dating from the early 19th century to the present as well as personal papers relating to the careers of people affiliated with the MGH.

Archivists preserve, arrange and describe collections, answer reference questions, oversee the reproduction of archival material, and generally aid in providing controlled access to collections.

A collection is loosely defined as a grouping of records created by a person, department or corporate body. For instance, the Social Service Department Collection contains administrative files, records from individuals associated with the department, records reflecting the day-to-day workings of the department, and photographs of department activities. An example of a collection created by a specific person is the Walter Guralnick, MD Collection, which includes biographical files, speeches, correspondence, photographs, and teaching materials all pertaining to and donated by Dr. Guralnick. The catalogs that archivists create for each collection are called finding aids.

Arrangement and description are the backbones of the archival profession. Though archivists will always attempt to stick to the original order of the records received, putting files in alphabetical order or grouping like records with like (such as separating out all photographs, or grouping correspondence by sender or chronology) can be of great help to researchers. That’s the arrangement part. Description refers to the contextual information the archivist provides. This can refer to a description of the entire collection (an overview of the types of records contained), or descriptions of individual portions of the collection (such as an explanation of the types and dates of correspondence included).

Reproduction of archival materials can range from photocopying an old Hotline or MGH News article to providing publication-quality photo scans for inclusion in a published work to creating digital surrogates for physical materials that are in danger of destruction or disintegration. (Although the MGH Archives can provide reproductions of many types of hospital-created materials, MGH does not claim to own copyrights for all materials in its historical collections. The publishing party assumes responsibility for any infringement of the U.S. Copyright Code.)

Typical reference questions the Archives fields include: Do you have any information about [MGH physician]? Can you verify the location of [specific ward] in a certain time frame? Do you have any films of mummies to being fed locomotives as fuel? (Really.) Generally, the archivist can handle specific, limited-scope questions. For larger inquiries that involve open-ended investigations, researchers are invited to schedule an appointment so they can peruse the potentially relevant Archives collections themselves. Researchers come from within the MGH and also outside – generally these outside researchers are working on books or articles, or compiling background information for a project.

While archives and libraries are frequently found together and have a lot in common, they have somewhat different missions and functions. Libraries usually allow for material to circulate, and they collect mainly published works. Archives generally do not allow materials to leave the premises, and most of the materials collected are unique and irreplaceable.

Given the fact that the MGH is the oldest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, the two institutions’ archives are deeply intertwined. The HMS archives are housed at the Center for the History of Medicine (CHOM) in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. When it comes to collections that might reasonably find a home in either repository, personal papers tend to go to CHOM, and departmental or MGH-related records tend to go the MGH Archives.

Absolutely. We aim to preserve the history of all the people who have made the MGH what it is.

Not necessarily. The MGH Archives may decline collections that have no relation to the history of the hospital or remove duplicates of items. Generally, there will be a discussion between the donor and the archivist about whether a collection is appropriate for the MGH Archives.

Both the MGH Archives and the artifacts fall under the purview of the museum. Typically the museum collects only objects related to MGH. To inquire about donating objects, contact

Though some historical patient records fall under the control of the MGH Archives, they are not available for biographical research. In some cases they can be made available for statistical study, but only with Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. If you are the relative of a deceased former patient, requests for medical records are handled by the Partners HealthCare Medical Records Department.  To request copies of medical records of a deceased patient, the request must be accompanied by authorization from the executor, executrix or administrator of the estate or personal representative, along with documentation indicating legal authority.

Most people in the library field use archives to refer to collections of records or the building or department where such records are kept. Archive usually refers to a less formal and rigorously maintained collections, like a file cabinet full of old papers, or a section of a website with past posts that aren’t arranged, described, or preserved beyond whatever the platform automatically does.