Archives: What are Archives?

Search the Archives

  • Archives are the non-current records of people, associations or institutions
  • Archives are unique, unpublished, primary, two-dimensional research resources such as letters, journals, photographs, posters or diaries which are deemed to have lasting evidential or informational value
  • Archives are not library materials, that is, purposefully created to serve research interests and organized in subject classifications
  • Archives are evidence of actions and transactions
  • Archives are more "elemental" than library materials and can be thought of as having a distinctly organic component; a sense of being a natural by-product of human or organizational activity
  • Archives have, perhaps, more in common with museums, oral traditions, natural and built environments, and works of art, than with library materials
  • Archives should be conceptualized as "records of" rather than "records about" a person or organization or association
  • Archives are accumulated rather than being consciously authored for the purpose of informing or entertaining. They maintain a special relationship with their creating body. Their organization and description after they are received into an archive reflects this relationship
  • Archival records such as day books, journals, and ledgers that may be used by business historians to construct a theory of nineteenth-century economic activity were created in the natural process of running a business; correspondence kept family members in touch with one another: their use by social historians is quite a different matter inasmuch as there was (usually) no sense of their being permanently preserved when they were written. They were not created for subsequent research use, and access and effective use of them for research purposes depends upon understanding this fundamental difference between archival and library resources.

Archives may consist of:

  • correspondence
  • journals
  • diaries
  • minutes
  • literary manuscripts
  • deeds or other land records
  • wills
  • marriage contracts
  • ledgers or day books
  • maps
  • sketches
  • broadsides
  • advertising flyers
  • architectural drawings
  • cassette or video recordings
  • micro-format records
  • electronic media
  • photographs

Archives are different from books:

  • archival materials do not circulate; they must be used in the archives Reading Room
  • archival materials are retrieved for the user from closed stacks
  • archival materials are preserved in the order that they were created by the person, association or institution
  • archival materials are unpublished, primary, unique

How are Archives Organized?

Archives are arranged according to provenance and, where possible, original order is maintained. Archives are not dispersed into subject areas but are kept as evidence of the creating body, not, in the first instance, as a resource for subsequent research. The concept of provenance is crucial to the authenticity of the archival record.

  • Each archival document or group of documents (known as a fonds) is assigned an accession number and shelved as it was created and subsequently forwarded to the archives whether it consists of one letter or a hundred boxes.
  • Archives have no subject categorization schemes as libraries do. Materials pertaining to specific subjects are not removed from the fonds. Some "extra" information adheres to the archival record by maintaining the papers according to provenance and with absolute respect for the context of each and every component of the fonds. Papers accumulated by a creator and kept intact tell us more about the creating body than would any sum of their parts if we broke it up into subject groupings or removed specific media from it without ensuring that appropriate intellectual linkages were in place. That is, maps for example might be physically removed from a group of papers to be stored more safely in special cabinets but any finding aids would include reference to those maps. Their contextual existence would be secure. Archival practice requires that the records of a person or agency be kept together, and, in addition, be kept in the same order as they were originally arranged. These are the rules of "provenance" and respect des fonds which govern the arrangement and description of archival material in every archival depository.
  • Archival materials are less managed, and less manageable, than library materials. The maintenance of fonds holistically, and in the order in which they were created, dictates mechanisms of acquisition, description, arrangement and accessibility within the archival repository.

Additional Information:

Click here to access other helpful resources.