The purpose of the historical archives is to promote research into the history of psychiatry, in particular the development of modern (since 1870) academic psychiatry in German-speaking countries. The archives do so in a two-fold way: Firstly, they provide access to researchers from medical and cultural-historical disciplines who are studying the history of psychiatry. Secondly, by conducting independent research studies of its own. The holdings of the archives include the “Heinrich-Laehr-Collection” the private library of Heinrich Laehr, a member of the famous family of alienists from Berlin. This unique collection comprises several thousand volumes that are of utmost interest for historians of psychiatry. The archives also contain an extensive collection of about 2 million histopathological slides from the institute's former Department of Neuropathology (1917-1995). Furthermore, as an official branch of the "Archives of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft" located in Berlin-Dahlem, it serves as an intermediate depository of the Max Planck Society.
The founder of the institute, the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926), started to collect papers and objects of importance in the 1920s. However, during World War II, virtually all of these original holdings were destroyed. The reconstruction of the historical archives began in the 1990s, with the focus being initially on the "Genealogical and Demographic Department" (1917-1945). Due to the role which the department's director, Ernst Rüdin (1874-1952), played in the German race hygiene movement as well as the psychiatric policy of the National Socialists, these archival materials are of great interest to large numbers of researchers from various academic disciplines. Although the re-establishment of Kraepelin’s collection is now well underway, this remains to be the archives' most important independent research project. Further holdings of high interest are the partial estates of Robert Gaupp (1870-1953), Hubert von Grashey (1839-1914), Hans-Walter Gruhle (1880-1958), Werner Leibbrand (1896-1974) and Theodor Viernstein (1878-1949). Recently, the archive began the acquisition of a partial estate of Alfred Ploetz (1860-1940), the founder of the race hygiene movement in Germany.