What is an Archives?

As part of International Archives Week 2020, the International Council of Archives (ICA) has encouraged its members to consider what archives are and what they mean to researchers and society. Read on for my thoughts and a few sources on archival collections, institutions, and professionals, and what parts they play in empowering 21st century communities.

The Basics

Archivists and researchers use the word archives in many different ways. At the most fundamental level, “archives” refers to the documents that archivists collect and preserve. To avoid confusion with other uses of “archives,” archivists often use terms like records, papers, series, or collection to talk about the materials in their care.

References to “an archives” are usually about an organization that collects, preserves, and provides access to such documents. Sometimes “archives” appears in the name of these units (like FSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives). Archivists use the terms archival repository or archival institution to mean the same thing. You will also hear archivists and researchers alike use “archives” to refer to a location owned and/or operated by an archival repository (“let’s go over to the archives”).

The term “archives” can encompass the entire professional field devoted to developing archivists and archival best practices. Like other professionals and academics, we form societies and conferences to exchange ideas and arrive at standards to govern our common responsibilities. Synonymous terms include archival science, archival studies, and my personal favorite (and probably most archaic), archivy. Scholars also use “the archive” to refer to higher, abstract concepts of collective cultural memory.

The Stuff

There is a persistent, somewhat outdated stereotype of archives as paper files. The file folder and flip-top document box have become synonymous with the archives profession and the unofficial symbols of archival collections and institutions. For a few hundred years of European-descended civilization, paper records were the norm, and modern archival practice evolved around them. Terms like “file” and “papers” are still used regularly by archivists to describe groups of documents, even if they’re not written or printed on paper. However, to characterize all archives as paper files is to ignore most of the history of human record-keeping. For thousands of years, humans recorded financial transactions and laws on clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. Throughout the twentieth century, organizational and personal archives increasingly included documentary forms such as photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, and data, on substrates including paper, film, phonograph disc, magnetic tape, and computer diskette. In short, archival documents appear in every format that everyday documents have ever appeared.

Some formats have terrific advantages in preserving and providing access to them. When you store non-acidic paper flat in a cool, dry, dark place, it will last hundreds of years. The same is true of clay, parchment, vellum, and other substrates. Archivists call this approach benign neglect. Put it on a shelf, walk away, the document’s always there when you return. Some formats are less advantageous. Magnetic tape is becoming notorious for breaking down, and sound recordings, video, and data stored on it are in danger of eventually being lost. The same is true for different kinds of motion picture film, photo negatives, and the kind of cheap paper that makes up paperback novels, magazines, and newspapers. Avoiding this kind of “malevolent neglect” is a growing responsibility of modern archivists. Archivists take great pains to make new copies of old works on these substrates, to keep them accessible to you. A lot of these formats require technology to see and use – film projectors, VCRs, cassette decks, etc. Commercial obsolescence poses great challenges to access to a lot of twentieth century documents, and archivists must assemble a wide array of increasingly-historical devices or partner with those who do.

Worldwide Access

Digital files, increasingly a part of archival acquisitions, are a mixed blessing. Computer disks can fail over time; software becomes obsolete. But aside from that, digital documents shine when it comes to access. By their nature, they can easily be used and copied and shared with no risk to the original. Digital documents are so shareable that they’ve revolutionized how archival research services work. In fact, digitization of non-digital documents is now the preferred way to make copies for users, since the repository gets to keep a copy as well, and most 21st century users are looking to read and use documents digitally anyway.

Online access and digitization services make access possible in all kinds of exigent circumstances. As I write this in June 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has closed public buildings all over the world, including user spaces in many (if not all) archival repositories. But thanks to the amenities of digital documents, so many repositories are in effect “open” to users that ICA compiled a map of them.

Authority in a “Post-Truth” Culture

Archivists take great care to collect information about their documents. When you open a book from your local library or personal collection, the book gives you a lot of context about itself. It’s got a proper title, author credit, table of contents, preface by a celebrity du jour, all providing you important clues to the book’s content and placing it in a continuum of conversation about its topic. Many archival documents do not carry this kind of self-evidence, and it falls to archivists to aggregate and share it. We take great pride in devising useful descriptions of our documents, and especially in noting the provenance of our holdings; that is, knowing where documents have been before coming to the archives. If you know the content, creator, and subsequent owners of a document, you know quite a bit about its purpose and how it’s been used.

This kind of record-keeping makes archivists confident in speaking to the authenticity of these documents. For example, we can be confident that the Paul Dirac Papers are actually those of the renowned physicist, because we received them from Mrs. Dirac herself!

Archivists place a lot of value on accountability. When first working out how to preserve digital documents, the profession adopted the phrase “trusted digital repository” to describe institutions with good procedures. In a new century replete with “post-truth politics” and “alternative facts,” the work of archivists is designed to both encourage and withstand critical thinking and the scrutiny that comes with it.

The Future

The archivists of FSU and of the world remain committed to increasing access to our rare and unique holdings. Sometimes this is about leaps in tools and technical knowledge. Sometimes it’s about acknowledging existing shortcomings in our practice and culture that keep us from documenting and reaching out to new populations. However the times change, expect that archives will change with them.

Further Reading

FSU Special Collections & Archives. (2020). We Stand Against Racism and Systemic Brutality: Special Collections & Archives Commitment. Illuminations. https://fsuspecialcollections.wordpress.com/2020/06/04/we-stand-against-racism-and-systemic-brutality-special-collections-archives-commitment/

Robert Rubero, Rory Grennan, Krystal Thomas, Sandra Varry. (2018). Challenges to Creating and Promoting a Diverse Record: Manuscripts and University Archives at Florida State Libraries. SFA Journal, 1(1). https://journals.flvc.org/sfaj/article/view/105356

Laura Schmidt. (2011). Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research. Society of American Archivists. http://files.archivists.org/pubs/UsingArchives/Using-Archives-Guide.pdf

Kate Stewart. (July 15, 2019). The Secrets of Archival Research (and Why They Shouldn’t Be a Secret at All). Medium. https://medium.com/swlh/the-secrets-of-archival-research-and-why-they-shouldnt-be-a-secret-at-all-88dc611e0c41

Published by Rory Grennan

Rory Grennan is Director of Manuscripts Collections at Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

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