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“Everyone today has a story; the world’s an archive.”
Archives can be created by anyone in society.
Creators of archives range from private individuals and families, small groups and communities, to organisations, businesses and official institutions.
Explore the links below for examples of different types of archive creators:
- Businesses - e.g. Guinness Storehouse Ltd
- Charities - e.g. British Red Cross
- Churches - e.g. Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham
- Families and Estates - e.g. Duke of Norfolk's Estate
- Governments - e.g. Parliamentary Archives
These are just a few examples, representing creators that are financially and administratively able to manage their own collections. However, it is not just large or wealthy individuals and organisations that create archives. Within the walls of local authority record offices are vast numbers of collections created by everyday people, local shop owners, small campaign groups, and civic figures such as councillors and MPs.
When we talk about archives being created, what we are actually referring to is the creation of records by the individuals and organisations discussed above.
These records are presented in a wide range of formats, representing different document types, and they record various categories of information. The subjects covered are entirely dependent on the reason behind the creation of individual records, but formats, record types and categories of information can be explored further.
Record formats change over time, and are influenced by technological and social developments. During the medieval period, legally and administratively significant information was recorded in writing on parchment or paper. Literacy rates were low, education being reserved for the elite in society, and writing materials were expensive. With the spread of literacy during the early modern period, the development of printing and new techniques of manufacturing paper, it became more common to record information on paper in written or printed format for a wide range of business and personal reasons. With the development of technology during the 19th century, accurate visual representation of information became possible through photographic processes, and the typewriter became a favoured way of recording and copying text quickly and legibly. This process was made even more efficient with the development of the personal computer in the 20th century. The late 20th century saw an explosion in the type of records created in society, as new electronic file formats were made possible by the rapid development of technology.
As we might expect from such developments over time, the individual record types that are found in archive repositories can vary hugely. Common 'traditional' record types include letters, land deeds, wills, diaries, press cuttings, photographs, film footage, minutes, reports, accounts, maps and surveys. Increasingly, archive repositories are receiving record types which include email accounts, databases, blogs, and variations on traditional record types in electronic file formats.
Turning to the information recorded in archives, we can broadly classify this into the following categories:
- Textual, either manually written (manuscript) or typed (typescript)
- Visual, either still images, moving footage, or illustrated representations
- Audio, usually voice and sound recordings
- Numerical, used to record dates, quantities, measurements, etc.
Each category of information can tell us different things, and can be used to support different research methodologies. For example, numerical information will be relevant to quantitative approaches, whilst visual and textual information can be helpful when taking a qualitative approach to research. Understanding what categories of information are recorded in different record types can help when selecting appropriate sources for use in projects.
As researchers, we view and use archives as research resources. However, the individual records that constitute archive collections are a product of people carrying out processes around the making of decisions and the undertaking of activities.
To provide an example, as researchers we might use surviving correspondence from the 18th century to draw conclusions about common literary styles and phrasing. However, such letters were originally created because correspondence was a practical mechanism for communication over geographical distances. Simply put, letters were written and sent so that the author could convey information to the recipient. Evidence of literary styles and phrasing is incidental to, albeit a related byproduct of, the original purpose.
The act of recording information, therefore, serves a specific purpose to the people creating the record. There are many reasons that people record information, but these reasons can be broadly categorised as administrative, creative, or legal.
Explore these reasons further using the tabs below:
The word 'administration' is usually associated with businesses and governments. However, we all undertake administrative tasks in our daily lives.
Such tasks might include keeping a record of your spending in order to stick to a budget, they might also include writing letters or emails to respond to information that has been requested or to communicate information. If you are invited to a meeting at work, or if you attend a lecture, you might take notes so that you remember important information.
These types of activities are undertaken by businesses and individuals alike, only the scale and level of organisation differs.
Looking at some specific record types: minutes are written to record decisions taken at meetings; reports are written to convey findings of an investigation; accounts are kept to record financial positions; newsletters are compiled to update stakeholders on events and activities, etc. These are all administrative reasons for creating a record.
Archives might come into being as part of a creative process, undertaken by individuals, groups or large organisations. The create process can involve research, jotting down of detail, drafting and re-drafting of ideas, and the crafting of a final work.
Taking the writing of a work of historical fiction as an example, a writer might visit an archive or library to read up on the trends and events of a given time period, making notes as they do so and jotting down ideas for characters and plotlines; they might then write a first draft and send this to a friends for comments; having received comments they might redraft, before creating a final proof copy for publication. At each stage of the creative process a record has been created.
Looking at some specific record types: adverts are created by businesses to persuade potential customers to purchase a service or product; photographs are taken to depict individuals, places and events; scripts are typed up and shared to provide actors with the information they need to portray a character; writers notebooks are used to record thoughts, ideas and drafts for poems and stories. These are all creative reasons for making a record.
Legislation governs the way individuals and organisations can act. Sometimes, ensuring compliance with legislation generates records.
For instance, when we start at a new workplace we might be asked to undertake health and safety, equality and diversity, and information governance training. Employers are required by law to ensure that their employees are aware of their legal obligations under related legislation. Devising the training creates online resources and undertaking the training generates employee training records.
As another example, certain pieces of legislation require individuals or organisations to complete statistical returns, such as legislation governing the UK's national census or reporting of police crime statistics.
Records created in these ways might become archives if deemed to be of historical and cultural significance to society. The concept of how records can become archives is explored further on the page Archival Theory.
Understanding why archives are made can help us to understand the contexts in which specific records might have been created. This in turn helps us to be more analytical when interpreting the records in coursework and dissertation discussions. For more on critical analysis of archives see the page Using Archives.
Think about the records you create and the work or personal contexts in which you create them. Do any of these records have the potential to become archives?
For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic many of us discussed the impact of the pandemic on our work, home life, and social life. We might have sent emails containing our experience to friends, family and colleagues who we couldn't see in person; or we might have made entries in a diary to help us process our own thoughts. Normally, the emails and diaries of everyday people might not be identified as historically significant. However, in this instance, such records can tell us a lot about the everyday experience of living through a pandemic in a way that official reports on the pandemic can not. Here we find a parallel to the Second World War diaries that have been found and donated to archives across the country to demonstrate how ordinary people experienced the war.