What are Archives?
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced
How do you define 'archives'?
'Archives' in the context we are talking about can be defined as:
Materials that have been created by individuals, groups or organisations during the course of their life or work and deemed to be worth keeping permanently for the purposes of research.
Importantly, they are not usually created for future research, but for immediate practical, personal or adminstrative purposes, as part of the activities of an individual, family or organisation.
The word 'archives' is used for so many different things, and there is no universally agreed definition. 'Archive' is sometimes used simply for materials that are stored indefinitely, such as a back-up of emails. You may also hear the term 'manuscripts' used to refer to the papers of individuals or families, as opposed to 'archives', which may be used specifically for the papers of businesses or organisations.
To add to the confusion, the term 'archive' can mean a place where archives are stored, as well as a collection of materials. You may hear 'archive', 'record office' or 'repository' to refer to a place that preserves and makes available materials for research. So, for example, you can say that the Stanley Kubrick archive is held in the University of the Arts Archive in London. You can read more detail about what is meant by 'archives' on the Society of American Archivists' glossary pages (but bear in mind that sometimes the UK perspective is slightly different to the US perspective).
When trying to visualise what might be within an archive, it can help to think about the different types of materials that you might find in an archive. The Archives Wales site has a page with examples of different types of archives. Increasingly, archive collections include electronic records, such as word processed documents, emails and websites, but many collections are still primarily paper-based.
Archives range in date from ancient right through to contemporary. They can offer insights into all walks of life and all subject areas. They reflect our personal, social, economic and political activities throughout history, up to the present day, and they provide evidence that sheds essential light on the who, why, when and where of our history.
Take a look at an Archives Hub feature that highlights some of the more curious collections that are described on the site, and you will see how diverse archives can be.
Where are archives held and who looks after them?
There are recognised specialist buildings or departments that house archives in secure and controlled conditions.
The holding institution or place may be called a repository, a record office or an archive. These places typically hold archives relating to a geographical location (for example the record office for a county), or a subject area (such as architecture or medicine), or they form part of an organisation (such as a university or college). The UK also has national archives - The National Archives at Kew in London, and the National Archives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Record offices or repositories vary in size, but they always have a 'reading room' where you can consult their holdings. Some repositories may require you to make an appointment before you visit, this is often because they have limited space or resource.
Archive collections also exist within the community - you sometimes hear the term 'community archives'. These may be kept by a local special interest group and may be available for consultation.
Archives are usually looked after by qualified staff, called archivists. A record office may employ archivists, as well as archives assistants and conservators, and it may also have a number of volunteers.
What is an archive collection?
A collection can be defined in two ways:
1) Materials with a common provenance. Provenance is about the origins and history of something over time. Materials with a common provenance were created or brought together by an individual or individuals, so they have an organic nature, sharing a common history. Archivists sometimes use the term 'fonds' for this type of collection.
For example, the archives of a business, the personal archives of an individual or the estate archives of a family- each forms an integral collection.
We sometimes talk about the evidential value of this type of collection. It provides evidence of someone's life or work, or the business of an organisation as a whole. You might say the sum is more than the parts - you can often get a sense of how someone worked or how a business was organised by looking at the entire collection.
But do bear in mind that this does not mean the collection is comprehensive - it may be that there are gaps within a collection, and it may only tell a small part of a much bigger story.
2) Materials that have been brought together artificially, but do not have a common origin.
For example, a collection of photographs that show a particular event or represent a group of people, or a collection of ephemera on a particular subject.
These 'artificial collections' are usually created because they bring together similar materials in a way that is useful for research, but the materials are not related by a common history or provenance. The collection as a whole does not provide evidential value because it is not an 'organic collection'.
You can read more about the meaning of provenance on Wikipedia.
Cambridge University Library have produced a video about one of their high profile collections, the Board of Longitude archive. This video gives an overview of the subject matter and why the archive is so important to our understanding of the history of navigation at sea. The Board of Longitude archive is a typical large, historically significant collection, and it has been digitised. But many archives are much smaller and more modest. They may also be paper-based, as digitisation requires time and resources, so archivists have to be selective in which archives they choose to digitise.
Board of Longitude Archive: Video Introduction
What are primary sources and what are secondary sources?
- Primary sources are either (1) contemporary with the time that they are written in, or (2) they are first-hand accounts of events. Usually they are both of these.
- Letters, diaries, minutes of meetings and account books are good examples of primary sources. Oral histories are a good example of first-hand accounts that may be created after the event, but provide eye-witness accounts. If the source was written by someone who was there, and who experienced the events they are writing about, then it is a primary source.
- Secondary sources are not based on direct observation, and are usually written after the event. They often use primary sources in order to make observations and conclusions. Typical secondary sources include articles and books.
- You can think of secondary sources as having the benefit of hindsight, whereas primary sources were created by the people involved, at the time being studied, so they can provide direct evidence of an event. This is why they are considered to be essential for historical research.
- It is worth remembering that types of documents or information can be both 'primary' and 'secondary', the terms are not clear cut and they depend upon the context in which you are using the source. A published article can be read as a primary source that reveals something about how a topic was reported at that time.
A newspaper account of the politics of the 1832 Reform Act that was written in 1832 is a primary source for the 1832 Reform Act. A similar account written in 1867 is not a primary source for the 1832 Reform Act, becaue it is looking back, written in retrospect. However, it might be used as a primary source for the 1867 Reform Act. You might use it to assess how opinions about the 1832 Act affected views of the 1867 act.
The University of Cambridge has more information about Reading Primary Sources.
What is the difference between a library and an archive?
- The core collections in a library are published - books and periodicals, maybe magazines, CDs and DVDs. Many items are displayed on shelves for you to browse. A library usually includes a loan section.
- An archive holds original sources, which are largely unpublished, although it may also hold books, periodicals and pamphlets of an historic nature, often complementing and supporting the archive collections. The unpublished collections are not available on open shelves, but are in a secure store. You need to order the items that you want to consult and they are not available for loan. Digital collections may also be available to view on PCs within the repository and some material may be on microfilm.
- Sometimes a library includes an archive, and sometimes the archive is defined separately from the library.
- A library may also hold 'special collections', which are usually defined as rare or fragile materials. A special collection may include manuscripts and archives as well as rare books.
Can archives be digital?
Yes, archives can take any form. Digital content is increasingly common within archive collections, although most archives are still non-digital. Digital archives include websites as well as emails and electronic documents. The University of Manchester was engaged in an innovative project to make the email archive of the Carcanet Press available.
Digital archives may have been created in digital form, or they may be 'surrogates', which means that a digital copy has been created from a non-digital source. Many archives have been digitised in this way, to make it easier for you to view them online, and sometimes to preserve the original if it is fragile.
You may think digital content is more convenient, but sometimes digital archives are hard to access because they are on old formats. Digital formats change very rapidly, and the issue of digital preservation is a major concern, as we have huge amounts of information stored digitally that may be lost if we cannot find ways to access it over time.
It seems easier to work with digital materials than physical, as I can view them remotely
It may be more convenient to work with digital materials, but it is much better to think about the archives that are most valuable and relevant for your research, rather than whether they are digital or not. Only a small proportion of archives are digital, so you could be missing out on a huge amount of evidence if you only looked for digital content.
In addition, being able to handle a physical object can be very rewarding and can tell you more about history. You can feel it, examine it, and maybe find physical evidence beyond just the written content. Many researchers prefer the tactile nature of physical collections, and put great value on the evidence they can glean from the physical document, such as wear and tear, watermarks, and simply the sensation of holding a document that tells a story!
I thought that archives included research data or data sets?
Data sets are often described as archives, but it is worth noting the distinction between these and collections of archives. Data sets are usually set out in tabular form and they list values for a range of variables. They are often outputs from research, and may comprise data from surveys and other studies. There is currently a move within academia to ensure that research data is properly preserved for researchers to access, so you may hear about research data archives.
Social Scientists tend to use this kind of data. If you are a social sciences student, you may create your primary data through something like a questionnaire, and this data could become an archive for others to use.
The image here shows the 2011 Census - you can download anonymised statistics about UK households.
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced