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Archives - The Basics: Archival Theory

Introduction to the basic concepts surrounding archival material and its use for research, including what are archives, archive creators, archival theory, and using archives.

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“Since the first satellites had been orbited... pulses of information had been pouring down from space, to be stored against the day when they might contribute to the advance of knowledge. Only a minute fraction of all this raw material would ever be processed; but there was no way of telling what observation some scientist might wish to consult”

Arthur C. Clarke, Writer 

Archival theory

Understanding the key concepts that underpin the work of archivists can help you when searching for archives, using archive catalogues, and considering the nature of archives and how they come to be.

Archival theory underpins the work undertaken by archivists when selecting what to keep, describing what is available, and managing the collections in their care, so that current and future researchers can benefit from using those collections. This page provides an overview of key principles, concepts and practices in the archives sector.

Archival principles

Provenance: refers to the origin or source of something; in archival theory it refers to the origin, custody and ownership of an item or collection (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists)

Provenance is how archivists determine what should form part of any given collection of records. Records with the same provenance are kept together as a single archive collection.

Respect des fonds: the principle of maintaining records according to their origin (provenance) and in the units in which they were originally accumulated (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists)

Sometimes referred to as 'original order', the principle of respect de fonds underpins how archivists arrange individual records within a single collection. Records are then described in this order so that researchers can see evidence of interconnections between individual records.

Explore respect des fonds further: Michel Duchein, ‘Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des Fonds in Archival Science’ in Archivaria No.16 (1983)

Key concepts

The record

The concept of the record lies at the heart of archival theory. Therefore, it is helpful to start with a look at some definitions.

A record is:

  • Data or information stored on a medium and used as an extension of human memory or to support accountability (Society of American Archivists)
  • A piece of information or a description of an event that is written on paper or stored on a computer (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • Anything preserving information and constituting a piece of evidence about past events; esp. an account kept in writing or some other permanent form (Oxford English Dictionary Online)

Such definitions clearly show that creating a record involves the documenting of information, this is the key thing to remember. Records are created as a contemporary activity, whether this is in the context of the operation of an organisation, or the actions of an individual. Creation of a record does not automatically create an archive, but rather the items that might become archival if preserved for their value as evidence of the past.

Records to archives

Two major approaches exist in archival theory to explain how and when records become archives.

The first approach is known as the records life cycle, and conceives of individual records moving through a linear progression of steps. This approach sees records become archives as a final stage in a life cycle that moves from creation; to maintenance and use; to disposition.

Explore the records life cycle further:

The second approach is known as the records continuum. It is heavily influenced by the development of postmodernism, and conceives of a state of constant flux, whereby various influences act on a record to give it multiple purposes at different times without it moving through a linear set of stages. This approach sees records become archives when they are fixed in time and space by recordkeeping practices, but allows that archives can still exist in a continuum.

Explore the records continuum further:

Useful reading:

Archival Practices

Accessioning: the process of intellectually and physically taking custody of materials (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists)

Accessioning is the first practice archivists undertake upon receiving an archive collection. A unique identifying number is assigned to the collection, a record is made of when the collection was received, who it was received from, and how the collection came to be in the hands of the individual making the deposit. Any copyright or access issues are noted, alongside details such as extent, covering dates, and a general outline of what records there are within the collection. The collection is then transferred to archival boxes and labelled with the unique identifying number. Accessioning provides archivists with the information needed to manage the collection, ensuring contextual details are preserved and the material is physically secure.

Appraisal: the process of determining whether records and other materials have permanent (archival) value (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists)

Appraisal of collections can happen at various stages. Before taking receipt of collections decisions are made as to whether or not a particular collection fits with an archive repository's collecting policy. Collecting policies (sometimes referred to as acquisitions policies) outline record types and subject areas of interest and strategic importance to a repository. For an example, see Hull History Centre's acquisitions policy. Appraisal can also take place after a collection has been accessioned, when an archivist is preparing an initial list of records ahead of cataloguing the collection in full. At this time, records are weeded for duplicates (such as multiple issues of the same newsletter) and material that holds little research value (such as draft versions of minutes where the final signed minutes are present).

Explore appraisal further: Terry Eastwood, ‘How Goes it With Appraisal?’ in Archivaria, No.36 (1993) – A critical exploration of the considerations that go into what records get kept as archives

Description: the process of creating a set of data representing an archival resource or component thereof (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists)

Having accessioned, appraised, initially listed, and determined an intellectual structure for the records, archivists then create a descriptive catalogue of the collection, so that researchers can understand what the collection is, what it contains and whether it might be useful to them. Individual records are described and intellectual levels of description are created to reflect how individual records within a collection are related. Further help understanding archive catalogues can be found in the SkillsGuide Finding Archives.

Explore description further: Luciana Duranti, ‘Origin and Development of the Concept of Archival Description’ in Archivaria No.35 (1993)

Preservation: the process of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of the material (Dictionary of Archival Terminology, Society of American Archivists)

Alongside accessioning, appraising, and describing an archive collection, archivists also ensure that the collection survives and is protected for future access. This practice is known as preservation, and might involve cleaning dirt or mold from individual items, repackaging fragile or loose items into protective folders and wrappings, and re-boxing the collection into acid free boxes. Sometimes, an item might be too fragile or damaged to handle, so a preservation copy known as a surrogate, is created for access by researchers.