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Archives - The Basics: What are Archives?

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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“Our archives are treasure troves - a testament to many lives lived and the complexity of the way we move forward.”

Sara Sheridan, Writer 

What are archives?

Most people have an understanding that archives are a resource used by historians and genealogists. But there is more to it than that.

The question of 'what archives actually are' is discussed more fully in the following sections.


Confusingly, the term 'archives' can mean different things in different situations. It is important we understand this before we can explore what archives are.

Read about the different applications of the term using the tabs below.

The word 'archives' is often used in place of the term 'archive repository/repositories'. In this sense, 'archives' are places of deposit for collections of archival material. They are established by services and organisations responsible for managing, preserving and providing access to archival material.

To give an example, Hull History Centre is an archive repository. Hull History Centre is a building (or a physical repository), operated jointly by the University of Hull and the Hull City Archives to manage and provide access to the archival collections held by both organisations.

The word 'archives' can be used when referring to collections of records, each of which discrete collections have been created by a single organisation or individual, and have been deposited in an archival repository.

To give an example, the records created by the Cooperative Women's Guild are held at Hull History Centre. We can refer to this collection of records as 'the archive of the Cooperative Women's Guild'.

The word 'archives' is often used when referring to 'archival material'. Archival material can be anything recording information deemed to have historical value. In this sense, 'archives' are records with historical significance.

To give an example, a piece of paper, on which is written an eyewitness account of a bombing raid during the Second World War, is considered to be archival material. It is not archival material just by virtue of being old, nor because it is a piece of paper, but because it records historically significant information.

Different understandings

Taking the term 'archives' to refer to collections of archival material, which have been preserved in archive repositories, archives can still be understood differently by different people.

There is no right or wrong answer. Understanding these meanings provides us with a more comprehensive idea of what archives might be.

Explore some of the different understandings of archives by using the tabs below.

Archives contain information recorded contemporaneous to a time of particular historical significance or interest to researchers.

For this reason, archives can be interrogated as evidence by researchers wishing to find out more about a particular place, event, individual or organisation. The evidence can help researchers to draw conclusions regarding the cultural, social and political trends at play during specific historical periods.

The contemporary evidential nature of archives is why we often refer to them as 'primary sources' of information.

Understanding archives as evidence is a valid though traditional historical outlook. Post-modern reinterpretations of archives have forced us to consider that archives are not just a source of factual information. Some argue that, because archives are the preserved contemporary records of a particular time and place, taken together they might be considered to represent the collective memory of society.

When applying this understanding of archives to our work, we must be careful to note that, much like our own memory, details can be forgotten. There are gaps in the archival record and some voices within society are absent. The old sayings 'history is told by the winners' and 'he who shouts the loudest gets heard' serve to demonstrate the point well.

If we factor this in, then understanding archives as collective memory gives us a better analytical understanding of the past, showing that the 'evidence' can be contested.

Critical analysis teaches us that we must consider subjectivity, bias and perspective when using archives for research. By extension, and as a result of the development of post-modernist schools of thought, some researchers consider archives to involve elements of narrative construction; the understanding being that creators of archives record details of relevance to their own experience and frame the information in reference to their own understandings of the world.

In recent decades, archives have come to be used by researchers working outside of the traditional disciplines of history and sociology. Researchers from disciplines such as Drama, Media and English have used archives as source material to develop characters, theatre scripts, and screen plays. Use of archives for such purposes, not just for their evidential value, has helped to popularise understandings that archives represent stories.

Explore these ideas further:

In light of such understandings as are outlined above, archives can be about many different things for many different people, both positive and negative, including:

  • Disenfranchisement from the official system (groups not fully represented in archival record)
  • Dull, dusty, outdated and irrelevant (those who've had little or bad experience of archives)
  • Family and community togetherness (participants in outreach activities arranged by repositories managing archives)
  • Intrigue and hidden stories (those with inquisitive minds)
  • Knowledge and information (all users of archives)
  • Power to dictate a narrative (groups represented in the archival record)
  • Scholarliness and academic achievement (researchers)
  • Shared memory and identities (groups represented in the archival record)

How does the archives sector see archives?

Many organisations working in the archives sector have produced guides looking the question of what archives are.

If you want to explore this question further, have a look at the following links and the videos opposite.

The UK National Archives have produced the following video exploring what archives mean to different people.

The Scottish Council on Archives have produced the following video exploring what archives are and why they matter, using examples from Scottish archives.


What do you consider 'archives' to be?

For example, an archivist might consider archives primarily in terms of their research potential and possible use to others. In this context, the archivist might consider archives to be primary sources, whilst understanding that they have contested meanings for different people.