What Are Archives?

An explanation of archival operations and theory from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana

Archival theory and practice call for the exercise of professional expertise and responsibility to accomplish seven goals:

  • Institutions, organizations, and individuals establish, administer, and evaluate archives to ensure the retention, preservation, and utilization of archival holdings.
  • Archivists authenticate documentary information through the analysis of its content and evidence obtained during the process of its accession.
  • Archivists appraise or evaluate documents on the basis of anticipated use in relation to the costs of description and retention.
  • Archivists arrange information according to source and original order to sustain the integrity the documents had while in active use.
  • Archivists describe documents in finding aids, guides, and inventories to facilitate long-term access to their informational contents and ongoing administrative control of the holdings.
  • Archivists ensure the future availability of documents in a safe environment and on physical media that will remain accessible, renewable, or convertible for the period of expected use.
  • Archivists promote and facilitate the use of documents to explain the past, provide guidance in the present, and accountability to the future.

Some commom terms used in and about archives:

ARCHIVES
are the organized noncurrent records of an institution or organization retained for their continuing value in providing a) evidence of the existence, functions, and operations of the institution or organization that generated them, or b) other information on activities or persons affected by the organization.

DOCUMENTS
are instruments for the communication of information, regardless of their physical form or characteristics. They may be in the form of an impression on paper, a magnetic impulse, or a beam of light.

MANUSCRIPTS
are documents (in any format) accumulated, collected, and/or generated by a private individual(s) and subsequently donated to or acquired by a repository to ensure their retention and public accessibility. "Manuscripts" include personal papers with organic unity, artificial subject collections of documents acquired from diverse sources, and individual documents acquired and retained by a repository for their potential research use. Manuscripts may be differentiated from archives in that they are informal records, privately acquired and maintained for their subject matter content. Manuscript collections are often described as "personal" or "private" papers. The term "manuscript collection" may also refer to records brought together for a specific purpose by a repository or a collector.

RECORDS
are all documents, regardless of form, produced or received by any agency, officer, or employee of an institution or organization in the conduct of its business. Documents include all forms of recorded information, such as: correspondence, computer data, files, financial statements, manuscripts, moving images, publications, photographs, sound recordings, drawings, or other material bearing upon the activities and functions of the institution or organization, its officers, and employees. A document becomes a record when it is placed in an organized filing system for use as evidence or information. It becomes archival when transferred to a repository for preservation and research use.

ACCESSIONING
is the process by which archivists take physical and/or legal custody of records that have been donated to them by individuals, offices, or organizations.

APPRAISAL
is the process of examining sets of records to determine if they have value that warrants their permanent retention by the Archives. Typically, when appraising records, the archivist will consider two different "values" of records:

  • Primary Value: The importance of the records for the person, office, or organization that created them, such as day-to-day administration, documenting legal obligations, or establish fiscal responsibility. These values often disappear after the records have achieved the purpose for which they were created.
  • Secondary Value: The purposes for which records can be put to use by those other than the person or organization that created them, once they have achieved their purpose.
    • Evidential Value: Although inactive records have lost their primary value, they still contain evidence of how the person, office, or organization was organized, how it functioned, and how policies and decisions were made. Hence, inactive records have evidential value.
    • Informational Value: The value of the information contained in the record which documents persons, places, or things. This information is often useful to historians, genealogists, etc.

ARRANGEMENT
is the body of principles and practices which archivists follow to group records in such a way as to reflect the manner in which they were held and used by the office or person creating the records.

RECORD SERIES
A systematic gathering of documents that have a common arrangement and common relationship to the functions of the office that created them. Typical record series include subject files, project files, chronological correspondence files, client files, applicant files, financial records files, voucher files, and minutes and agenda files.