History gives us countless examples of social groups and society as a whole keeping records of activities and significant events. These records document epic historical events such as the rise and fall of political regimes, and ongoing patterns of war and peace, They also preserve evidence of the minutia of everyday life, such as births, marriages and deaths, which are personal to each and every one of us.
Documents recording the evidence of these events can take an endless number of forms: from an oral re-telling passed down through the generations; a written document created by those governing a society; letters and diaries kept by individual members of a society; to the more recent audio-visual recordings and email correspondence with which we are familiar. Such documents can be created by anyone: from private creators such as families, estates and individuals; to organized groups and official institutions such as charities, societies, businesses, churches, schools, councils and governments.
Archives come in to being when such records are kept by a society and its members for the evidence they provide, and because they are deemed to have historical value. They represent a society’s ‘collective memory’ and are preserved as such in archival repositories.
Unlike published library materials, which have many duplicates, archives are unique and can usually only be found in one place. We sometimes refer to archives as ‘primary sources’ because they make up the raw material used by researchers who are looking to investigate various subjects. They give us a unique and original perspective on the past, and without them we would have no real sense of history and where we have come from.