Terrible Terminologies – what actually is an archive?

Library, Archive, Museum – all the same, right?

While the general public is generally clear about what ‘archives’ themselves (the materials) are, it finds defining ‘the archivist’ more difficult.
‘While archives are recognisable, physical objects, ‘archivists’ are defined only by the material with which they work; but exactly what this work is and what their association with ‘archives’ is remains obscure.’ [1]
Margaret Procter’s quote highlights archives being recognisable to the public, but I argue the definition of archives been different things to different communities, and there is not a right or wrong definition. Archives, Libraries, and Museums need to embrace blurring of boundaries, and listen to what the communities they serve want.

Some archivists definitions of ‘Archive’
Even for an Archivist Society there isn’t one meaning (and individual archivist’s naturally have different interpretations) In the society of American archivists’ glossary alone the term ‘archives’ has six different possible meanings, including the building itself.

1.Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. – 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization’s records of enduring value. – 3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. – 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. – 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. – 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.[2]

Number 6 in this definition would not be seen by an Archivist as an archive. ‘A published collection of scholarly papers’, in cataloguing would be catalogued under library standards , not archival (ISAD[G]). Published papers are not unique original records. The National Archives in their Guidance for eligibility talking of a collection of Ordnance Survey maps, states that this would not fit the definition of an archive: ‘The OS maps, facsimiles and prints are not unique records and can be accessed elsewhere. Had the collection contained a substantial quantity of original manuscript maps, or OS maps annotated for evidential purposes (e.g. annotations made by a landowner to show land in their ownership), it would be [archival]’ [3]

In the archives I am currently working with within my position as Archivist at the University for the Creative Arts these include prospectuses from 1889 – technically these are publications, yet they are also evidence of the institution’s activities. Other material in an animation studio archive includes the personal annotated book library, images of which were used in the final animation. These are published books, but they are also part of the archive in the sense they were used as part of the pre-production animation process. The definition of an archive is naturally fluid.

Other archival definitions

Word cloud of archives

The above word cloud is the result of a workshop of 25 digital screen art students mind mapping what they felt an archive was. The prominence of digital is hardly surprising given user expectation for material to available online. Here archives are also equated to a library, and museum, and books are also highlighted, supporting the blurring of boundaries. Collection is also high on the list, which is interesting in archival terms. Some archives use ‘Fonds’ as a top level, some use ‘Collection’ – the term ‘Fonds’ highlighting there is a provenance, the term ‘Collection’ suggesting that it’s a pile of material collated from all sources. However, users won’t necessarily see this. The term ‘Fonds’ could be seen to be a way of alienating the communities that archivists’ serve.


I have had a book publishers ‘archive’, which as well as the material that you may consider as ‘archival’ (letters, finance, conference records) also included his large personal library – a debate resumed between myself and the Data Quality Librarian regarding whether this should be seen as a separate book collection, or whether this was collected as part of informing how this book publishers was run, to sit intellectually together on the same catalogue. Artists, particularly, produce all types of material within their work, including sculpture, costume, as well as paper or digital files, and there is no reason why they should see that this should be intellectually divided.

Archives in the Digital age
The concept of uniqueness or originality In the age of digitally born records is also under question. Archives are not necessarily ‘physical objects’ – they could be emails, websites, social media, such as twitter. On a recent record keeping round table, Kirsten Wright in her presentation, Broadening the record and expanding the archive highlights this in her statement ‘Archivists, on the whole, are clear on an epistemological level that records are much more than just “traditional paper files”’ [4]
Many archival formats, cannot be, or are not advised to be accessible on their original format, for example, film reels, VHS or cassette tapes. Is the digital copy of this material an archive or a digital representation/surrogate? The definitions between the original record, and the surrogate record is again blurred. Does the digitised image lose the authenticity? Artists that specifically work on obsolete formats may think so.

Even if we take the idea that archival material is unique, cannot be accessed elsewhere, and is created by a ‘person, family, or organisation in the conduct of their affairs, and is of value’. The idea of ‘uniqueness’ is made much more difficult when addressing the digital age of archival material

Challenges in adapting wider definition of archive
Challenges is accepting all different types of format into an archive may include that keeping all material together may not be suitable for the cataloguing system, that the material is being catalogued in – typical library management software not having a hierarchy system, for example. There are physical issues too – an archive is not always equipped to take in costume, for example.

However catalogues, and cataloguing standards, and their purposes need to constantly adapt – in terms of metadata archival cataloguing standards ISAD(G) (international standard of archival description [general]) is not necessarily suited for digitally born archives.

Ultimately, whether a material is classed as archival or otherwise, depends on the context in which it is used – is it used/collected/created for the running of the business, for developing your work? We can *probably* call this an archive…

[1] Procter, M. (2010). ‘What’s an Archivist? Some Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’, Journal of The Society of Archivists, 31(1): 15-27.

[2]          Society of American Archivists Glossary Archives http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/a/archives

[3]        The National Archives 2013: Archive Service Eligibility Criteria p. 4 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archives/archive-service-eligibility-criteria-june-2013-website.pdf

[4]          Wright, Kristen 30th June 2014: Broadening the record and expanding the archive from Reinventing archival methods: Continuing the conversation Record Keeping Roundtable


Rebekah Taylor.

Archivist & Special Collections Officer


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