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English Composition II Archival Searching for Instructors: Archives overview

What are Archives?

According to the Society of American Archivists, the word archives can be used in three different ways:

  • “The word archives (usually written with a lower case a and sometimes referred to in the singular, as archive) refers to the permanently valuable records—such as letters, reports, accounts, minute books, draft and final manuscripts, and photographs—of people, businesses, and government. These records are kept because they have continuing value to the creating agency and to other potential users. They are the documentary evidence of past events. They are the facts we use to interpret and understand history.
  • An Archives (often written with a capital A and usually, but not always, in the plural) is an organization dedicated to preserving the documentary heritage of a particular group: a city, a province or state, a business, a university, or a community. For example, the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States, Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, The Coca-Cola Company Archives, and The Archives of the Episcopal Church are all responsible for the preservation and management of archives.
  • The word archives is also used to refer to the building or part of a building in which archival materials are kept, i.e., the archival repository itself.”

An Archives’ main goal is to save, secure, and share the story of the institution, a person, a group of people, a culture, city, state, building, etc. After materials to document that story have been collected, the Archive will ensure the materials are kept safe through proper preservation protocols, and will make sure that materials are secure and cannot be stolen or tampered with. But, there is more to an Archives’ mission than simply storing and preserving these materials—why keep materials if no one knows you have them? This is why an Archives must share the material they keep. One of the ways Archives are sharing their materials is by creating digital copies of their materials and sharing them online in digital collections.

Here is another great site to explain what an Archive is, from the University of Nottingham, and another great site from the UK's ArchivesHub website on what an Archive is.

Archival Terms and Definitions

Archivists use terms specific to their profession to describe collections and the materials in them. If you run across an unfamiliar term, you can look it up in this glossary of archival terms provided by the Society of American Archivists.