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Archives: What They Are and Why They Matter


October 25,2015

By: Mellisa Gonzales, Witte Museum Archivist

When we hear the word ‘archives’ we usually think it’s a place to store things we no longer use but might want to in the future. News outlets and websites use the term to mean the area where older articles and posts are stored, but regarding information management and access, the term ‘archives’ refers to the following:


  1. An organization that collects records of individuals, families, businesses, or other organizations; in other words – a collecting archives.
  2. The building that actually houses archival collections.
  3. The materials within the archives.


Archival repositories vary in size and can be found in universities, museums, public libraries, historical societies, religious institutions, hospitals, and businesses. You will notice that archivists tend to refer to the archive as the ‘archives’ at all times regardless of number because of the plurality of its meaning. The materials within archives are created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, while conducting their affairs. They are preserved because of the enduring value the information contains, which is considered evidence of the functions and responsibilities of the creator or document a particular event or time period.


When archivists refer to the materials in the archives, we call them collections, which can mean many things. Most archival collections are composed of accumulations of papers or documents, which we also refer to as records. Collections can also be compiled of photographs, artifacts, business records (such as financial and legal documents), correspondence, or personal materials, like journals and scrapbooks. Even born-digital or electronic records are referred to as archival collections, and when a collection is composed of both physical and digital materials, we call them hybrid collections. Sometimes we even designate electronic records as papers since we try to keep the same descriptive standards as physical collections.


Historically, archives were created as trusted repositories meant to keep governments in check and protect citizens against authoritative abuses by providing transparency and accountability, while ensuring our cultural heritage survives. This is why to this day archives and libraries are some of the first buildings destroyed in times of sociopolitical strife. When archivists work with donors, it is a delicate interchange to develop trust. Individuals, families, and organizations trust archivists and archives to protect and preserve their materials in perpetuity.


Archives are similar to libraries in that we often collect the same materials, however, archives are always closed stacks. Libraries are open stacks in that you can check a book out, take it home, let your dog slobber on it, and when you return it damaged, librarians can easily replace the book. Keep in mind that archival materials are rare and unique. Once they are gone, we cannot replace them. This is why we limit access to storage facilities and require use of the materials in a reading room.


Librarians are focused on access followed by preservation, whereas archivists are concerned with preservation followed by access. Keeping this in mind, procedures and policies in the archives make using archival materials very different than browsing the stacks in a library. You will notice in archives that you are required to fill out a form to access collections and asked to lock away your personal belongings. Contrary to common belief, archivists do not relish their James Bond villain reputations. We do it because it is our responsibility as stewards of the cultural record to maintain the longevity and authenticity of the materials. Intellectual and physical control serves as tools to help archivists maintain the security of collections and ensure authenticity over a long period of time. By limiting access to collections, liability is also removed from anyone who doesn’t have authorized contact with them. In other words, the procedures are there to protect non-archives staff members and researchers alike in case of loss.


Archival preservation is very different from conservation. Archivists strive to preserve the current condition of the materials, whereas conservation refers to repairing an item to as close to its original state as possible. Archival materials are fragile and subject to chemical, biological, and physical damage due to heat, humidity, particulates, and frequency of handling. Proper environmental controls are just one way to prevent deterioration. Biological threats, mostly pests, are deterred by the rule of no food or drinks in the archives or while using materials. Digitizing is not viewed as a means of archival preservation. However, it helps create accessible surrogates to protect those materials too fragile to handle.

Proper handling + Respect for the materials = Proactive Preservation

Archives are not only repositories of historically valuable information but are available to the community in many ways via an array of services. We hold governments and administrations accountable for their actions to ensure justice is maintained. We help you get in touch with your roots by providing genealogical research assistance. Whether you’re in high school or a graduate student, we’re great sounding boards for kicking off research projects. We can assist you in preserving your family’s historical materials. We are here for you, and we can’t wait for you to come visit us, so please stop by your local archives today!

Watch a video about the archive resources available at the Witte!