Do you know what an archive is? If your answer to this is “yes! absolutely!”, then won’t you tell me all about it (ideally in an engaging, non-soporific kind of way)? If your answer is “uh, isn’t that the place where they store stuff?”, then my response is “yes! absolutely!”. In addition to being places to store stuff, this is what I know about archives

  • First, an SAT analogy. published materials:libraries :: nonpublished materials: _______. If you’re filled in the blank with “archives”, then you’d be correct! Libraries house published materials — books, CDs, DVDs — while archives house unpublished materials — letters, diaries, business records, costumes . . . etc. Examples of archives include the National Archives, the Hoover Archives, and Warner Bros Archives. To be sure, there are a number of libraries and archives that violate the published/nonpublished demarcation, but as a first cut, I find this distinction helpful.
  • Archives place a higher value on preservation relative to use than libraries. This explains why a lot of archives are closed stacks; one cannot go and browse in them. Instead one relies on finding aids to locate the materials one needs, makes a request for such materials, and then the archives delivers that specific material to the person, all without him ever pawning around in the collections. Incidentally, this is how libraries used to work before Melvil Dewey came along.
  • Because finding aids are so important to archives, they expend a lot of resources on them. This is an area where libraries and archives really diverge from each other. Libraries call the process of making a record of what they have in their collection (presumably so people know what is available where) cataloging, while archives call the same process describing. The goal in cataloging is to document the content/information in the holdings, whereas the goal of archival description is to document their provenance. That is, archives focus on materials as evidence: where did these materials come from, who created them, why were they created.

Insofar as possible, archives keep the materials on their shelves in the same arrangement as when they came in through the doors because this preserves the original purpose of the materials, i.e. how they were used by their creators. Imagine a library doing that! Books would shelved according to when they arrive at the mailroom!

To be fair, archives do not receive their materials one book at a time like libraries do. Archives receive entire collections, oftentimes by donation from, say, a business that’s gone out of, well, business, an estate of a person, or student groups on campus.

  • By and large, library catalogs are  standardized across institutions. One MARC record looks remarkably like another. This makes sharing information much easier between libraries. (WorldCat, “the world’s largest library catalog”, is a fine example of this kind of metadata sharing.) Such standards made possible, in part, by the fact that library materials are more standardized, and standardizable, than archival materials, which tend to be one-of-a-kind items.

Finally, the same archive, describing the same material, can have multiple descriptions. For instance, if the archive is serving two separate constituents, say academics and non-academics-something-else, they may well develop two different finding aids to fit the the needs and backgrounds of the constituencies. This is analogous to preparing materials so Orlando Figes can write on the Crimean War vs. serving a history professor’s needs for publishing in a specialized, academic journal about some narrow aspect of the Crimean War. Like I said before, archives spend a lot on these things.

PS. How do you think that effort was in terms non-soporific-ness?

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