Administrative records, Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Record keeping, Records management, Research

An Archive is not a Library

library

Ok – so you’re doing historical research on an issue, person, building, or place and realize you need more specific or unique information than you’ve been able to find in books and on the internet.  

It’s probably time to find out if there’s something in an archival collection that would help.

But what the heck is an archive?

The Oxford English dictionary defines an archive(s) as:

1) A noun

“A collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people”

and

2) A  verb “To place or store in an archive”

Archives used to have a very specific meaning – though still obscure and  unfamiliar to most people – and referred to a physical place where original one-of-a-kind physical documents were kept.

But in the past 20 years or so, the term has become muddied because old or obsolete electronic documents are now frequently found within an archives section of webpages, databases, and other digital sites and can refer to  past issues of newsletters and magazines, old or historical emails, databases, websites, and other digital material.

This post, however, is about original kind of archive – the physical place where original (mostly paper) documents are kept. 

Of course the definition of an archive doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand so I’m going to make a few comparisons with libraries that I think will help make it more clear.

A library is something that most of us are familiar with and have been going to since we were kids – a place to get information about something we’re curious about or need to research. But that’s about where the similarity with archives ends.

A library contains mostly books that have been published which means that there are probably thousands of copies of most books available throughout the world.

You can go to a local library and find the kind of books you want by looking up the author, title, subject, keyword in the online catalogue, or by browsing the shelves within the non-fiction part of the library where other books on a related subject are shelved using some kind of classification scheme. 

You can usually go right over to the shelves and help yourself to the books you’re interested in. You can take as many as you can carry to a table to look at at one time. And you can take most if not all of them home to borrow for a few weeks.

And there isn’t generally a problem with keeping your purse or bag or backpack with you in the library or with using a pen to take notes.

But mostly, you cannot do any of these things in archives.

So now that you have an idea about what an archives isn’t, I’ll delve into more into that in the weeks to come.