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Using Archives In Your Research: Archives Explained

Why are archives important?

  • Evidence of past activities including social, political, economic and personal
  • Essential means of examining the past
  • Contemporary record of the actions and opinions of real people
  • Document the character of an individual or organisation
  • Increase our sense of identity by highlighting a shared past
  • Promote accountability and bring to light past actions
  • Understanding the past is vital to an understanding of the present
  • Strong physical connection to history

But don’t take my word for it:

There is nothing more useful for instructing and teaching men, nothing more necessary for cleaning up and illustrating obscure matters nothing more necessary for conserving patrimonies and thrones, all things public and private, than a well constituted store of volumes and documents and records

Bishop Baldassare Bonifacio, writer and poet, 1632

Of all our national assets, Archives are the most precious; they are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care for the them marks the extent of our civilisation

Arthur Doughty, archivist

What I’ve learned about history is in the field, so to speak. Going into the archives and working with it directly

Nathaniel Philbrick, author

I read around the subject, I make a skeleton outline and then I start work in the relevant archives … I just love the days when you come out of the archives with half a dozen excellent descriptions or poignant accounts of personal experiences

Anthony Beevor, best-selling historian


What does ARCHIVES mean?

“Archives” is a complex word with various meanings:

  • As a noun, the archive or the archives are a place where important historic documents are kept
  • Also as a noun, archives are the historic documents themselves
  • As a verb, to archive is to place in an archive store
  • In computing to archive means to transfer to a store for infrequently used files
  • Something that is ‘archival’ has the qualities of an archive
  • An archivist is a professional who looks after archives

So the sentence: “the archivist archived the archives in the Archives” makes perfect sense, despite sounding like a bad tongue twister!                                                                            

Other words for archives:

  • As a place where documents are kept: repository, record office, registry
  • As objects: documents, manuscripts, material, collections, papers

Archives (in the sense of documents) are defined as materials created by an individual or organisation in the course of their day to day business, that are no longer of use but have been retained for their information and evidence of activities carried out by the creator.

An example might be your diaries.

This years’ diary = a current record = you use it everyday

Last years’ diary = a semi-current record = you don’t look at it every day but it’s useful to have around in case you need to check something

Older diaries = archive records = you no longer need to check them, but they are evidence of what you got up to 5 years ago and you want to keep them as a reminder

Common Questions

Archives take many forms depending on their creator.

For example, the personal papers of a noted scientist or writer might include:

  • Private correspondence by letter and email
  • Research notebooks
  • Drafts of publications, annotated typescripts
  • Photographs
  • Awards
  • Leaflets and brochures
  • Events programmes
  • Recordings of radio or television shows

The archives of a university might include:

  • Official correspondence
  • Reports
  • Statistics
  • Committee minutes
  • Financial accounts
  • Registers of students
  • Personnel (staff) files
  • Plans of buildings
  • Promotional material like prospectuses
  • Video clips from open days
  • Posters and photographs relating to events
  • Student newspapers and staff newsletters
  • Samples of student work

So you see that as well as paper documents archives may also include volumes, photographs, plans, maps, audio-visual material and even artefacts. They can be in hard-copy or kept digitally, and can be anything from 700 years old to 6 months old, so long as they are not in current business use.

Examples from DMU Archive including admin files, postcards, photographs, brochures, newspaper cutting, guest book, building plan and a film reel.

Archives are usually kept in special storage areas, whether in a dedicated building just for the archive or as part of a larger building, like at DMU where the archives are kept in the lower ground floor of Kimberlin Library.

  • National and central government documents are kept at The National Archives (formerly known as the Public Record Office)
  • Local government records are kept at the local record office or local authority archive, which tend to cover a defined area such as a county or a city: see the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland or the Bristol Record Office
  • Other institutions can choose where best to keep their records:
    • A large organisation may have the resources to keep their records in-house, such as universities, business and religious institutions, such as the Church of England Record Centre or HSBC Archives
    • Smaller businesses, community groups, charities and individuals might prefer to offer their material to a suitable archive
    • The local record office usually takes papers relating to the local area, for example a prominent local family, a local business or a local church
    • Some universities collect material relating to a special subject, e.g. King’s College London Archives includes the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives which was initially founded to support their War Studies course
    • Some museums include archives relevant to their collections e.g. the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery collect art and design archives

Most archives have collecting policies which outline what they agree to take in. Archivists will usually suggest other options if items are not suitable for their repository.

Archives are unique and if lost, are lost forever. Therefore there are special requirements for their care. Archives need:

  • To be kept together in collections to retain their provenance and authenticity
  • To be catalogued according to archival standards
  • To be kept in climate controlled storage rooms
  • To be protected from the environment in special packaging
  • To be accessed in secure, controlled conditions
  • To have specialist conservation care if damaged 

Archives are cared for by qualified archivists, who have studied archival theory at post-graduate level. They follow internationally recognised guidelines and standards for the care of archives.

This may all seem over the top but it is the best way to ensure that precious and invaluable documents survive for generations to come.

Examples of special acid-free packaging for archives

Books and archives have different needs which allow them to be kept in different ways.

Key differences:

  • Books are replaceable; archives are unique
  • Books can be browsed on open shelves; archives must be ordered from staff
  • Books are catalogued one by one; archives are catalogued as a collection
  • Books use classification systems arranged by subject; archives are arranged by creator
  • Books can be borrowed; archives must remain in the reading room
  • Books are kept at lower security; archives are kept in high security
  • Libraries contain published material; archives are unpublished.

Of course there are exceptions:

  • Rare book and special collections libraries often function more like archives because of the value and age of the books
  • Some libraries include local studies sections which include some material that might be archival, like newspapers
  • Not all books can be browsed – in some libraries you have to request books from stock

Rare or very old books are usually kept in similar conditions to archives

Can I trust archives?

You cannot trust archive documents any more than you can trust any other source of information.

Archival documents are primary sources – that is, they were created at the time of an event by people involved in the event and give a first-hand account. You must always be cautious when looking at primary sources as people may still include opinions and ideas in their documents which are not necessarily fact. A report writer may omit to mention something that went wrong to his manager, but mention it in a letter to his wife. If you read one without the other you would not have the full picture.

Think of an email to a friend in which you tell her about a night out. How reliable do you think your account is? Are there things you forgot to mention? Did you witness every single thing that happened?

Ask yourself the following when you consider an archive source:

  • In what context was this created? (a private letter will be different to an official report)
  • How reliable is this? (was it written long after the event? Was the author very biased towards one opinion?)
  • What was the original purpose of the record?
  • What is the provenance of the collection? (provenance is the history of ownership. If a collection has passed through several owners it may have been tampered with)

Has the original order been maintained? (archivists try to keep collections in the order which their creators kept them, although it is not always possible)

A history book is called a secondary source. While many historians strive to be objective, others might have a bias which will affect and influence the way they write the work, the evidence and facts that they choose to include and the conclusions that they draw. For example, if someone who hates cats is asked to write an essay about the history of the domestic cat, they might find that their subconscious dislike for cats causes them to write in a way that emphasises the facts that show cats in a poor light. However, secondary sources do have the benefit of hindsight, and of being able to collect and consider a range of evidence.

Imagine a historian in 100 years time is writing about the success of a specific film. She finds a text message that you sent to a friend saying that the film is rubbish, therefore she writes that the film was very bad and generally disliked. Does this seem sensible? Think of all the primary and secondary evidence she could gather before making her judgement:

  • Sales figures for the film’s cinema release
  • Internal reports from the distributors and film maker
  • Newspaper reviews of the film from a range of different papers and countries
  • Personal opinions like your text message
  • Mentions of the film on cinema websites and forums
  • Reference to the film in books about cinema

As a researcher your job is to gather together evidence from different sources and pull it altogether into one narrative.