What makes for an archives? A look at the core archival functions

Archives storage

Photo credit Archives. Licensed under CC0 Public Domain

Roger Gillis

Archives is a term that can have many different connotations. In the loosest sense of the word it can be taken to mean a collection of historical records, and what counts as “historical” varies from one setting to the next.  As institutions, archives tend to adhere to several core principles: acquisition, appraisal, arrangement & description, preservation, and access. These core archival functions are, in and of themselves, the subject of much study by archivists and archival scholars (see Archivaria; American Archivist).

Acquisition –  the process through which archives obtain archival collections takes several different forms. Archives might obtain records through formal records management processes in their organizations (if established) that ensure that records designated as having archival value are transferred to the archives.  Or, they might obtain records through a private donation, transfer from another institution, or by other means. This process of acquisition is explored further in some of the other featured blog posts this week.

Appraisal is the process through which archival professionals assess what records hold intrinsic value and suitable to long term preservation through archives. Archives do not have the capacity to keep everything.  They must make decisions for what is appropriate to keep and decide what they have the capacity to preserve and make accessible over the long term. Moreover, archival appraisal is often employed in determining priorities for arranging and describing archival collections and sometimes determining monetary values of collections.

Archives and Archivists, as the keepers of the  “raw materials of history” put considerable work into not only preserving the records to ensure that they can be accessed by researchers, but also into arrangement and description. By being made accessible to researchers, archival records undergo efforts designed to preserve them, understand their origins, and make them accessible. Many researchers are familiar with larger archives, such as Library and Archives Canada or their university archives, but there are hundreds of different archives in Canada alone. Take for example, two Canadian provinces: Ontario and Nova Scotia. The archives in these provinces are of varying shapes and sizes and include corporate archives, religious archives, university archives, museum archives, Indigenous organizations, community historical societies, and many others. Many of these organizations run on limited budgets and meagre resources and may often be staffed by dedicated volunteers, part-time staff, or staff with split responsibilities (e.g. a dual archivist and curator).  These archives often have specific mandates — requiring them to only collect certain types of records. Even larger archives may have only several staff engaged in core archival work.

Moreover, archives rely on external funding (in short supply in Canada) in order to preserve records and make them accessible.  Organizations are often not able to prioritize archival work because it does not demonstrate an immediate return on investment.  As such most archives have backlogs of material that they are unable to describe or arrange due to lack of time and/or resources. Many Archives are making efforts to address this issue, but it still remains a significant problem for archives. In fact, many archives routinely apply for external funding (which is in very short supply among federal and provincial funders in Canada) to enable them to tackle the processing of backlogged archival collections.

Preservation of archival collections involves much more than stowing collections away on shelves until they need to be consulted.  Doing preservation properly means having adequate storage facilities with environmental conditions geared towards protecting collections from damage from light or humidity, specialized equipment and supplies to protect material from deterioration or decay. Carrying out preservation can be a costly endeavour, not only monetarily, but in terms of the time and resources involved as well.  In some cases, preservation means moving archival material to new formats (e.g. digitization or microfilm). This challenge is especially amplified in the digital era as Archivists face new challenges in preserving digital media.

Archives face many challenges in making archival records accessible, but facilitating access to users is at the heart of what archives do.  Archives make their collections accessible in different ways. The format many researchers are familiar with is the archival finding aid (often featuring digitized items) which describes the archival collections context and creators in varying levels of detail. Canadian archival institutions have made considerable strides in making their finding aids available.  This effort has been led by provincial archival councils (who also operate on minimal funding), in Newfoundland and Labrador,  Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

Understanding the core functions of archives that are undertaken to preserve and make records accessible is vital to working with archival records. Having an appreciation and respect for the work involved in making archival collections accessible, as well as the challenges that archives and archivists face in doing this work can go a long way in fostering an appreciation and recognition for the value that archives have in our society.

Roger Gillis is an Academic Librarian at Dalhousie University  in Halifax. He currently serves as the President of the Council of Nova Scotia Archives.

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4 thoughts on “What makes for an archives? A look at the core archival functions

  1. Paul C. Thistle

    Dear colleagues:

    Was this post complete?

    Call me ‘old school,’ but surely ACCESS to records is a “core function of archives.” No?

    If not, maybe it’s time to seriously reconsider what ‘business’ we actually are in.

    To what end do we go to all the trouble of professionally & systematically spending public resources on acquiring, appraising, arranging & describing, & preserving–just to have the stuff under effective intellectual control, full stop?

    Sometimes I click ‘send’ before I intend. I trust this is the case here & that an update will be created.

    Respectfully yours

    Paul C. Thistle

  2. Roger Gillis

    Hi Paul, access is addressed – in the paragraph starting “Archives face many challenges …”

  3. Paul C. Thistle

    Right, but it’s not bolded & explained in detail like the other [apparently really important] “core” functions. Is “access” not just as important as the others so bolded & explained in detail? I am arguing that access is really the ‘business’ archives should be in–not just the collecting & gaining intellectual control over acquisitions. I just want access to have equal treatment with the other so-called “core” functions rather than afterthought. The brand of archives needs to be outward, not inward focussed. If we don’t, it’s too easy to zero-out our budgets.

  4. Krista McCracken

    Hi Paul,
    I would agree with your point that access is at the core of what archives do and I think most archivists would also agree.

    The second last paragraph of Roger’s post focuses on access (and includes it in bold, like the other core principals). He noted, “Archives face many challenges in making archival records accessible, but facilitating access to users is at the heart of what archives do.”

    The other core functions are what make access possible – eg. without arrangement and description access would be to unorganized (and likely not searchable) records.

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