Planning Your Visit

Planning Your Visit to the
Southern Maryland Studies Center

First-time archives users frequently experience something of a culture shock as they adapt to new concepts and procedures. Their expectations of what an archives should be are based on their experience of libraries. Most of us tend to equate the two, but there are significant differences between them.

This guide is intended to introduce new users to some of the "customs" of archives. As with a visit to any new locale, you can ensure a more productive and pleasant time by being prepared.

What are archives: Differentiating Between Libraries and Archives

Archives—n.  Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.

The nature of the material collected by archives is fundamentally different from that found in libraries.

Libraries collect published material, also known as secondary sources. The holdings of one library may be duplicated in whole or in part by the holdings of another. If a book is lost or stolen it, probably can be replaced.

Archives collect original unpublished material or primary sources. The records held by archives are unique and irreplaceable. By their very nature, archival materials are fragile and vulnerable to improper handling. If an archival document is lost, stolen, or irreparably damaged, the information it contains could be lost forever.

Where are the archives held: The Southern Maryland Studies Center

The Southern Maryland Studies Center (SMSC) is an archive and research center that seeks to collect, preserve, and provide access to materials that document the history and culture of Southern Maryland, an area encompassing Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary's Counties, together with the southern portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George's Counties. The SMSC was founded by the College of Southern Maryland in 1976 in order to provide a central location for research on this historically rich region. It is open to students, historians, genealogists, and all members of the public.

Collection—n. A group of materials with some unifying characteristic (a person, family group, corporate body, or subject).

The Archives hold over 225 unique archival collections, spanning from 1594 to the present. These collections include manuscript material, photographic material, records of local businesses and organizations, personal and family papers, paintings, etchings, maps, rare books, oral history interviews, and other audiovisual and born-digital materials.

The manuscript materials total approximately 500 linear ft, including over 500,000 individual photographic prints, negatives, and slides; more than 300 oral history interviews, totaling about 500 hours of audio recording; and over 250 maps, architectural drawings, and oversized prints.

The Maryland Collection contains printed and published reference materials, including books, newspapers, journals, and periodicals. Visitors can also access state and federal census records, newspapers, colonial records, and church records on microfilm from the 18th century to the early 20th century.

On-Site Access: SMSC Location, Hours and Research Appointments

The SMSC is located within the Library (LR Building) at the College of Southern Maryland's main campus in La Plata, Maryland. The Maryland Collection is located to your left when you enter the College of Southern Maryland Library's front doors. The Archives are through the sliding glass doors to your right when you enter the library's front doors. Our microfilm is located in the Microfilm Room to the right of the circulation desk.

The SMSC's Maryland Collection and Archives operate on different schedules.

The Maryland Collection of reference books has the same hours of operation as the College of Southern Maryland Library.

Our archival collections are available in the Archives, which are typically open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, although our hours are subject to change due to campus programs, campus closures, and special events.

Visitors are strongly encouraged to contact the Southern Maryland Studies Center at providing a brief description of the materials or collection of interest, requested appointment date, name, phone number and email address. This will ensure we can prepare for your visit, especially if you are traveling to use our materials.

If you would like research assistance or help identifying relevant materials, please feel free to contact us!

How do I start my research: Preparing for your visit

Whether you are a writer or graduate student, genealogist or local historian, successful use of an archive depends on a carefully plotted research strategy. Your strategy should allow adequate time for background research, establish which archives hold relevant collections, and include a work schedule which takes into account the extent of the material to be consulted.

In the immortal words of the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared!

Making sense of the topic

Many patrons are very knowledgeable about the topics that they research, having built up quite a lot of subject knowledge by doing research over many months, if not years. If you are just starting out with your research, or you are doing some research outside of your usual field, it is best to start with some background reading about the subject online or in the library first, before delving into the archives. You can check out the SMSC Resource Guides for some general secondary source materials you can find in the library here!

In addition, the books in our Maryland Collection are a part of the main College library catalog. Any item that has an "Md" in front of the call number is located in the Maryland Collection. All of the Maryland Collection and Archives materials are non-circulating, but there are additional circulating copies of some Maryland Collection books located in the main College library.

Making sense of the record

Depending on the individual record and the research topic, you may need the following abilities:

  • Ability to analyze how a record is structured and where relevant information (for instance, people’s names) is found.
  • Ability to read historical handwriting.
  • Ability to understand the language, whether this means an actual foreign language or jargon/abbreviations.
  • Ability to use skills for specific types of record, such as map-reading.

You must also assess the relevance of individual records in the wider context of their research, which sometimes means interpreting them with caution. Pay attention to things like:

  • Authority—who is the author? What is their point of view?
  • Purpose—why was the source created? Who is the intended audience?
  • Relevance—how is it relevant to your research? What is its scope?

Making sense of the research environment

The main key to successful research is getting the archivists to help you.

Just as you need subject knowledge before beginning your research in the archives, it is important to understand the subject knowledge, and limits therein, of your archivist. Contrary to popular belief, the archivist is not omniscient.

Asking the right questions is key to getting good answers! The first step to this is not being reluctant—ask the archivist directly! Some ideas include:

  • Give us a brief background of your subject—abstract form, please! Too many details might distract us from the root of your search.
  • Tell us where you’ve already been! This means other repositories, databases, and reference materials!
  • Tell us your plan of attack!

Online Tools

Finding Aid—n. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records.

ArchivesSpace is a web-application database, similar to a library catalog, which contains descriptive information called finding aids about what is in each of the archival collections in our Archives.  It does not include digitized material, but serves as a guide to help identify collections that may be useful to you in your research.  The database is completely text searchable, and you can also search by name, subject, or other identifiers.

At this time, we have uploaded descriptions of all of our oral history collections to ArchivesSpace, and we are in the process of uploading descriptions of all of our archival collections to the database.

What to expect: Visiting the SMSC

First-Time Visitors

In order to access archival materials contained in the Archives, all first-time visitors will be required to read the Regulations Regarding Use of Materials and to complete the Customer Registration Form. By completing the Customer Registration Form, you are agreeing to abide by the Regulations Regarding Use of Materials. To expedite your research process, please complete the form in advance of your visit.  It is not necessary to register in order to use our Maryland Collection reference books or our microfilm collections.

Don’t forget to contact us before your visit.

Using the Information

Reproduction of archival material is subject to the terms and conditions of the Copyright Act. This is a highly complex area for both archives and researchers. However, the researcher is responsible for determining copyright ownership and obtaining permission to publish any copyrighted materials.


Please remember to properly cite the SMSC, College of Southern Maryland, and the individual collections consulted when publishing results obtained through the use of the SMSC’s materials. Citing a primary source document, from an archives, varies depending on the preference of your instructor, the publication you are submitting the article, or the discipline in which you are operating. The particular style may be the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Psychological Association (APA), etc.

There are several elements to the citation which may be necessary to properly cite a document:

  • The document: The creator or author, specific item title, page, section, date.
  • Box and file number: The majority of materials found in archives, that are not books, are housed in some sort of container and within the container the various items are separated for various reasons in files.
  • Repository: This is the name of the archives.


Item Title, Day Month YYYY, Box #, Folder #, Collection, Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland.


Creator/Author Last Name, First Name.  Item Title. Day Month YYYY.  Collection. Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland, La Plata.


Creator/Author Last Name, First Initial. (YYYY, Month Day). [Item Title].  Collection, Southern Maryland Studies Center (Box #, Folder #), College of Southern Maryland, La Plata, MD.