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The Archival Lexicon

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.
—Rudyard Kipling

Jargon—the specific use of certain terms—defines and distinguishes a profession. As the Bellardos noted in their preface to their 1992 glossary, "terminology serves to mark the current limits of professional concerns and responsibilities." [1] Since the publication of the Bellardos' glossary, the archival profession has experienced profound changes that warrant a reassessment of those limits.

Over the last ten years, academics and practitioners refined and rearticulated core archival concepts. Writings about appraisal introduced many new terms, including macro appraisal, functional analysis, and context analysis. Encoded archival description, a revolutionary change in a fundamental archival function, incorporated a number of technical terms such as DTD and XML into the archival lexicon, and elaborated concepts such as archival cataloging and finding aid.

Possibly the most significant impact on archival language and professional boundaries resulted from the challenges of electronic records. E-records forced archivists into collaborations with different disciplines. In response, archivists adopted terms from information technology, publishing, and knowledge management. They began to grapple with born-digital documents and to become familiar with arcane aspects of technology used to record and authenticate electronic documents, such as ciphers, encryption keys, and encoding schemes. At the same time, other professions adopted—sometimes appropriated—archival terms. The very word that identifies the profession, archives, took on the meaning of offline storage and backup.

I believe that, at a fundamental level, the basic concepts of records and recordkeeping are not antiquated. They remain vital and important. However, the language of records is often tied to a paper realm, emphasizing physical qualities over functional characteristics. The challenge is to rearticulate the essential characteristics of those concepts in terms that make sense in a vastly different environment.

Samuel Johnson believed that one of the lexicographer's jobs was "to correct or proscribe . . . improprieties and absurdities." However, Johnson also believed that a dictionary should "register the language . . . ; not [to] teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts. [2]

The Society of American Archivists' first glossary was founded on the "conviction that professionalism demands precision, which in turn implies standardization" and presented "the preferred term and meaning in each case. [3] The Bellardos continued that practice, noting that they "identified preferred terms and developed definitions reflecting the practices of leading archival institutions and professionals. [4] While the first two editions were prescriptive, this glossary is descriptive. Rather than serving as an arbiter of correctness, it documents the different ways a term is used within and outside the profession. It is founded on the lexicographical principle of corpus linguistics. The definitions are not based on an ideal, theoretical model, but on how the words are used in the literature.While researching this glossary, I compiled a database containing more than 6,300 citations from more than 500 sources. [5] Those sources included glossaries, monographs, and articles from the fields of archives, records management, libraries, preservation, bookbinding, computing, and law.

Many terms have meanings that differ between communities of interest or disciplines; 'record' has senses that are specific to cataloging, to computing, and to law. Even within the community of archivists, meanings vary. For example, some archivists carefully distinguish archives from personal papers, but others do not. Some of these differences are significant, others are slight. The variations underscore a lack of professional consensus. As a result, the glossary points out horizons of understanding, where key concepts are being reconsidered or established. A single definition for a term could easily confuse a reader who is confronted with a text that uses that term with a very different meaning.

Many words were charged with considerable discussion in the professional literature and were the subject of flame wars on Internet discussion groups. Even though the glossary was not intended to be prescriptive, reporting differing senses necessarily drew intellectual lines in the sand. Teasing meaning from polemics was a bit like walking on a mine field. I often heard in my head renowned archivists challenging me to prefer their particular point of view. It would have been a lot easier to ignore those voices if I did not have a great deal of respect for them.

A significant temptation that lexicographers face is a desire to normalize the language, to make it more rational. In its most innocent form, that temptation is a compulsion to tidy up those areas of ambiguity around the details of meaning, to correct the exception by making some irregularity in the language fit the mold. A darker side of normalization is for the lexicographer to intentionally interject bias into the work by preferring one definition over another, often in deference to a personal point of view.

Hilary Jenkinson provides an excellent example of normalization when he synthesizes a definition of archives in his Manual. [6] Not satisfied with the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, he constructs his own "by comparing in some well-known case documents which are obviously Archives with others which are obviously not. [7] However, another person in another situation could just as legitimately select different examples and wind up with a very different definition. For example, having begun my career some sixty years after Jenkinson published his Manual and having worked primarily with photographic archives and local history collections in the United States, I found Jenkinson's definition archaic, alien, and artificial. The foundation of Jenkinson's definition does not fit my experience, so from my perspective his logic falls apart.

The issue is not right or wrong, but rather language's irregular nature. Different people can impose or discern different orders on language. Language is ad hoc, not de jure.A word's meaning is derived from its use, not from a rational system. Answering Juliet's question, linguist Stephen Pinker observes

What's in a name is that everyone in a language community tacitly agrees to use a particular sound to convey a particular idea. Although the word rose does not smell sweet or have thorns, we can use it to convey the idea of a rose because all of us have learned, at our mother's knee or in the playground, the same link between a noise and a thought. [8]

The difficulty is that individuals in the community have smelled roses with different colors. They may agree on the idea in general, but not in particular. This point was driven home for me when one particular sentence in a draft paper I was reading threw me into high dudgeon.

With more and more information now created in electronic, rather than physical form, records may need to be re-defined for an electronic medium. . . .

With some incredulity I pondered, Who was going to redefine 'record'? The passive voice masks a presumption that the active voice would have underscored; if the authors rewrote the sentence in the active voice, who would they expect to provide the new definition? There is no authority that establishes definitions for English words. Language evolves. It is not constructed. My goal has been to document the former, and to avoid the presumption of the latter.

Language is largely transparent. Words surround us like air, and we are usually oblivious to them. Only when there is some disturbance do we take notice. Words are so familiar that most people would be hard-pressed to define them with any precision. While working on this project, I asked a group of well-respected archivists to come up with a definition for record by listing essential characteristics. They stumbled, some of which was a function of their being caught off guard. Before I began this project I could not clearly and succinctly describe the characteristics of a record, and I could not have answered the question well. Only by paying careful attention to the contexts in which the words were used could I begin to get sufficient perspective to perceive the nuances of meaning.

Professions use some words as shorthand. Jargon used within a professional context where it is understood is a handy shortcut. Using the language outside that community is often confusing. Unfortunately, people overly concerned with intellectual trendiness often adopt hot new jargon—buzzwords—without quite knowing what those words mean. Bruce Handy wondered about the use of the word 'postmodern'.Why would editors at Elle describe a ski parka as postmodern? To find out, he contacted several authors who had used the term in odd contexts. He concluded that 'postmodern' had become "culturespeak, short for Stuff That's Cool in 1988. It's the current version of groovy—except that using it makes you sound smart. [9] Individuals with no desire to be trendy may similarly abuse language. Henry Fowler described cant as "insincere or parrotlike appeal to principles, religious, political, or scientific, that the speaker does not believe in or act upon, or does not understand. [10] Staff at the National Endowment for the Humanities use the phrase 'magic words' instead of 'cant'. These magic words often appear in grant applications because applicants think grant reviewers want to hear them. Unfortunately, their use of the words makes it clear that they do not understand them. For example, an applicant may promise that finding aids will be in MARC format because they know that MARC has something to do with description and is a standard reviewers look for. Unfortunately, the sample finding aid attached to the application clearly has nothing to do with MARC.

In the archival community, buzzwords and magic words include 'evidence', 'digital object', 'resource', 'metadata', 'trustworthy', and the phrase 'authentic and reliable.' The more archivists work with other communities, the more they must take the time—and words—to fully explain these concepts. They must take the time to learn other communities' specialized language, and to express archival ideas and concerns in those terms.

The issue is not purity of language. Jargon, used within a professional context, is a handy shortcut because its meaning is clear and often carries nuances that allow for succinct expression. Buzzwords often point to important developments, and the meaning shifts as the thing it refers to evolves. However, people often use jargon as filler words, resulting in sloppy language that reflects sloppy thinking.

In the end, words are slippery. Meaning is elusive. Language is clear only when there is nothing to argue about. We are faced with a vicious circle. As our understanding of ideas changes, so do the meanings of the words we use to represent those ideas.

Writing the glossary has helped me understand and engage in the larger dialog of the archival profession. It forced me to think about the words more carefully and, in Frank Burke's terms, more theoretically about the profession. [11] John Roberts summarized archivy in eleven words, "We save what is historically valuable—there; that is the theory. [12] Where Roberts sees simplicity, I see confusion and complexity. Roberts sees reflection as so much useless navel gazing. I see many questions surrounding almost every word in his statement.

  • The first question Roberts' statement raises is, Who is the 'we'? In context, it is clear that he is referring to archivists. In the age of electronic records, it will take more than archivists to preserve records. They must partner with information technologists and others, and those collaborations will blur the boundaries of who is an archivist.
  • 'Save' raises the question of how the process of saving records has changed. Because the process of migrating records to avoid technological obsolescence often results in changes to the records, we must think about how records' reliability is affected.
  • 'What' refers to the object of this process. Dynamic information systems, hyperdocuments, and virtual reality challenge our understanding of recordness.
  • Roberts' final phrase 'historically valuable' side-steps any number of questions.What is valuable? To whom? For what purpose?

Roberts' statement becomes more complex when I consider not what the words mean, but the why underlying the words. How I understand those questions has an immediate, practical impact on how I do my job. I do not think the questions have answers, per se. Like words and definitions, the questions and how they are understood will change over time and in different situations.

Even though the language of archives and recordkeeping has evolved over the centuries, the fundamental function and essential characteristics of a record remain the same. Society has long needed a way to fix memory for future reference, and that need has not gone away. We must come to understand how people are using new forms of records. Archivists are, in my mind, uniquely qualified to consider how the characteristics of those new forms map to established characteristics and the significance of new ones.

In a paper environment, records were an unintended by-product of other activities; records just happened. At the University of Texas, Harry Ransom built his reputation by collecting the many drafts of authors' works; he saw those drafts as evidence of the creative process that gave a richer understanding of the final work. In the digital environment, records don't just happen.With word processing, many—if not most—of the drafts Ransom would have wanted are lost. Each time a document is opened, revised, then saved, the previous version disappears unless consciously preserved. Few database systems are designed to be able to roll back data so that it is possible to see the state of the data at any given point in the past; data is added, changed, and deleted, with no thought to preserving older data for future reference. The challenge of paper documents is an excess of irrelevant memory captured in piles of paper. The challenge of electronic records is incremental amnesia.

While the language and practice of recordkeeping has changed, the work of archivists and records professionals remains fundamentally the same. I believe—and this is not a novel concept—that the character of our profession must change. Archivists have often been seen as custodians of the past.We are seen as the keepers of old things. While we will remain the custodians of old records, we must change our emphasis from the preservation of culture as a thing of the past. We must become advocates for future users of current information by ensuring the transmission of culture.What of the present needs to be remembered for future users? I believe that our knowledge of what has enduring value and of how researchers use materials is our distinguishing expertise. It is that knowledge that can enable us to help records creators know when to commit intentional acts of memory, to know what to save. To do that, we must be able to speak clearly.

Some of the more animated discussions with my advisors revolved around words that I found personally interesting, but which are of limited value to the audience. Sometimes I thought a word, such as eschatacol, was fascinating precisely because it was arcane. Many times I found that the word—and its underlying meaning—captured a piece of the profession's history and provided context for and insight into current practice. JoAnne Yates' Control Through Communication [13] was a valuable source of terms from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those words, based in paper records, gave me significant insights into how people used paper records to solve problems in the past, and from that I gained a better understanding of parallel problems in the digital present. One reason I favored including those terms was that I saw modern parallels. Ars dictaminis, manuals of letter writing with established forms that could be used as boilerplate, persist today under other names, and some word processing programs come with canned text that are, in my mind, equivalent.

Ultimately, this particular glossary is a work of autobiography. The selection of words and their definitions reflects my own career and interests. While I sought to be as objective as possible, working with advisors, seeking others' opinions, and justifying definitions with citations from the literature, the work will ultimately be a reflection of me. Another person would have written another glossary.

—Richard Pearce-Moses, 2005


1. Lewis J. Bellardo and Lynn Lady Bellardo, A Glossary for Archivists,Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers (Society of American Archivists, 1992), p. v.

2. Cited in Sidney Landau, Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography – 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 62.

3. "A Basic Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers," reprinted from The American Archivist 37:3 (July 1974), pp. 415–433. Citation, p. 415.

4. p. v.

5. The Bibliography is limited to those works cited in the Glossary. A more perfect glossary would have been based on a corpus that allowed a sophisticated analysis of a much larger and more diverse body of archival literature. Given the resources at hand, I built the corpus manually by reading many of those works and transcribing salient citations into a database. To complement that work, I also searched for citations from the Internet. Google was particularly useful to determine the more common form among variants because it reports the number of times the word or phrase appears in its database. For example, it reported 15,100 occurrences for archival science, but only 3,470 for archives science.

6. Hilary Jenkinson, A Manual of Archive Administration (Percy Lund,Humphries, 1966), p. 2 - 15.

7. p. 3.

8. Words and Rules, p. 2.

9. "The Rise and Fall of a Great American Buzzword," Spy (April 1988).

10. H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage – 2nd ed., revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers (Oxford University  Press, 1965), p. 315.

11. "Future Course of Archival Theory," American Archivist 49:3 (Summer 1986): 40–46.

12. "Archival Theory:Much Ado about Shelving," American Archivist 50:1 (Winter 1987): 66–74.

13. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).



A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology (2005) was made possible with support from

  • Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records
  • National Historical Publications and Records Administration Archival Research Fellowship Program
    administered by the Massachusetts Historical Society

Mark Greene of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, Diane Vogt-O'Connor of the National Archives and Records Administration, and Rob Spindler of Arizona State University served as advisors, guided decisions about the work in general, and reviewed definitions. Over the years and during this project they taught me as much about what it means to be a professional as anything else. I am humbled by their knowledge, generosity, support, and friendship.

Laurie Baty served as a masterful editorial advisor. Her careful reading of the manuscript caught many problems that crept in between A and Z, including clarifying definitions, fixing awkward language, and catching typos. Mark Longley once again proved his skill as a careful, thoughtful, and patient editor. His knowledge of technical writing has made the language of the glossary much cleaner.

Diane Vogt-O'Connor was supported in her review of the definitions by Lew Bellardo, who co-authored the second edition, and by several others at the National Archives and Records Administration. I am grateful for the many comments during the review process sent by Leon Miller, Geoffrey Huth, Ken Thibodeau, Barry Cahill, John Gervais, Ala Rekrut, and Rebecca Remington.

I am grateful to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the staff of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and to those others involved in the archival research fellowships for the opportunity to spend some time thinking about the language of archives.

I would also like to give special thanks to two individuals for their support of this work. GladysAnn Wells, Director of the Arizona State Library and Archives, made it possible for me to undertake this project and provided additional support. She has been a mentor and helped me be a better professional. My partner, Frank Loulan, has been patient, encouraging, and his general, wonderful self when I have been more than a little consumed in words. He has helped make me a better person.

—Richard Pearce-Moses