What Are Archives?

What Are Archives?

The word archives can be used in three different ways:

  • The word archives (usually written with a lower case a and sometimes referred to in the singular, as archive) refers to the 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.
  • An Archives (often written with a capital A and usually, but not always, in the plural) is an organization dedicated to preserving the documentary heritage of a particular group: a city, a province or state, a business, a university, or a community. For example, the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States, Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, The Coca-Cola Company Archives, and The Archives of the Episcopal Church are all responsible for the preservation and management of archives.
  • The word archives is also used to refer to the building or part of a building in which archival materials are kept, i.e., the archival repository itself.

Excerpted from The Story Behind the Book: Preserving Authors’ and Publishers’ Archives by Laura Millar

What’s an Archivist?

In the course of everyday life, individuals, organizations, and governments create and keep information about their activities. These records may be personal and unplanned—a photograph, a letter to a friend, notes toward a manuscript—or they may be official and widely shared—financial and legal documents, recordings of public speeches, medical files, and electronic records. These records, and the places in which they are kept, are called archives, and archivists are the professionals who assess, collect, organize, preserve, and provide access to these records.

The Work of Archivists

Archivists hold professional positions requiring adherence to national and international standards of practice and conduct in accordance with a professional code of ethics. The majority of professional archivists hold a baccalaureate degree, and many have one or more advanced degrees related to the profession.

Assess: Not every record has enduring value, and archivists don’t keep every record that comes their way. Instead, archivists select records, a process that requires an understanding of the historical context in which the records were created, the uses for which they were intended, and their relationships to other sources.

Collect and Organize: Archivists arrange and describe the collection of records, in accordance with national and international standards of practice.

Preserve: Because materials in archival collections are unique, specialized, or rare, archivists strive to protect records from physical damage and theft so that they can be used today and in the future. Increasingly archivists play a key role in ensuring that digital records, which may quickly grow obsolete, will be available when needed in the future.

Provide Access: Archivists identify the essential evidence of our society and ensure its availability for use by students, teachers, researchers, organization leaders, historians, and a wide range of individuals with information needs. Many archivists also plan and direct exhibitions, publications, and other outreach programs to broaden the use of collections, helping people find and understand the information they need.

Archivists and Other Professions

Archivists are sometimes confused with other closely related professionals, such as librarians, records managers, curators, and historians. This is not surprising, as many archivists share a location, materials, or goals with these professions. Although some work is related, distinct differences exist in the work of the archivist.  
Librarians and Archivists: Both professionals collect, preserve, and make accessible materials for research, but they differ significantly in the way they arrange, describe, and use the materials in their collections. Materials in archival collections are unique and often irreplaceable, whereas libraries can usually obtain new copies of worn-out or lost books.

Records Managers and Archivists: The records manager controls vast quantities of institutional records, most of which are needed in the short term and will eventually be destroyed. The archivist is concerned with relatively small quantities of records deemed important enough to be retained for an extended period.

Museum Curators and Archivists: Although their materials sometimes overlap, the museum curator collects, studies, and interprets mostly three-dimensional objects, while the archivist works primarily with paper, film, audio, and electronic records. Selections from an archives may be exhibited in a museum.

Historians and Archivists: These two professions have a longstanding partnership. The archivist identifies, preserves, and makes records accessible for use; the historian uses archival records for research.

Archivists in the World

Archival records serve to strengthen collective memory and protect people’s rights, property, and identity. For example, historians and genealogists rely on archival sources to analyze past events and reconstruct family histories; businesses use the records to improve their public relations and promote new products; medical researchers utilize records to study patterns of diseases; Native Americans may use archival records to establish legal claims to land and privileges guaranteed by federal and state governments; and authors use archives to acquire a feel for the people and times about which they are writing. In short, archives benefit nearly everyone—even those who have not used them directly.