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Archival Materials: A Practical Definition

January 22nd, 2007 · 4 Comments · PhD Research, Terms & Definitions

In my PhD research I am investigating the nature of archives access systems and the enabling technologies and practices that can be used to improve these.

I am currently in the process of establishing the scope and context for my investigation. This requires that a number of key concepts are defined so that I am using terminology that is internally consistent within the research, to properly identify the nature and characteristics of the entities which are under investigation and to facilitate the communication of research results to archival professionals as well as laypersons (i.e. users of archives access systems and personal digital archives).

One of the more critical definitions is for the actual objects that are made available via archives access systems. I am referring to these as ‘archival materials.’ As I explain below, I’ve chosen to move away from some of the more traditional definitions for records and archives to establish a practical, access-based definition for ‘archival materials‘ that better reflects the reality of the types of information objects that are being made available via archives access systems today and into the foreseeable future.

What are ‘Archival Materials’?

Archival materials are information objects that serve as evidence of past events. They record information about past activities and act as memory aids that allow its users to recall and relive them or to re-communicate information about those events at some point in the future.

The term event is used broadly to mean any type of activity or occurrence that could range from a single transaction (e.g. the purchase of a magazine at a bookstore) to any number of inter-related acts (e.g. all the steps involved in ordering, paying, packaging and shipping magazines to a bookstore). It may include a grand and long event such as a war, an election or an opera performance. It can include structured events such as a purchase invoicing procedure, a driver’s license application or a school exam. It may also include unstructured, isolated acts such as a spontaneous dance move or the unsolicited expression of an abstract idea.

Archival materials are the basis for organizational knowledge, legal evidence, historical research, as well as personal and collective memory. Archival materials can include a spreadsheet illustrating monthly sales, a contract that is introduced in a court proceeding, the correspondence of a famous author, family photograph albums, or an audio recording of a someone’s first violin recital. Other common terms in the English language that are used for archival materials include historical documents, archives, or records. [1]

Traditional Definitions

Most academic and professional definitions of records and archives focus primarily on their relationship to business processes or transactions and their subsequent role as evidence of those events. [2] These definitions typically differentiate between those documents that are strongly bound to business processes and those that are merely considered to be supporting documents, drafts, or incidental information. However, within the scope of this research project, a broader, more inclusive definition is used to account for the wide variety of otherwise non-record materials that end up, quite regularly, in archival collections.

In other words, this research is not concerned with archival appraisal, accessioning policies or enforcing a strict definition for the concept of record. It is concerned instead with providing access to those archival materials that have found their way into archival collections, whether for traditional record-keeping purposes or because archivists, donors or researchers have found the materials to be useful, interesting or otherwise worthy of preserving.

A Practical Definition

Archival materials are therefore defined broadly as objects in any form that record information which is preserved for future use as a memory aid. [3] Where this definition differs from more traditional ones is that the focus is not on the process or transaction that created the information object but rather on the fact that it is intentionally being preserved for some future reference and use. In short, this definition is access-based rather than evidence-based, reflecting Angelika Menne-Haritz’s declaration that “the use of archives is the only reason for their existence.” [4]

[update (25Jan06): I've since added the concept of 'proxy' to this definition. See comment#1 below.]

For this reason, the more generic term materials is used instead of records or archives, thereby intentionally avoiding some of the theoretical baggage that these carry. [5] Materials, quite simply, are the matter or elements of which things are composed. [6] In this case, it is the matter or elements of which archival information objects are composed. In turn, archival is used in this definition as an adjective that simply implies storage and preservation for future access. [7]

Under this definition of archival materials the scope of my research may include information objects that do not fit the stricter definition for record or even archives. Again, the main rationale is to have an inclusive, practical definition that recognizes all those materials which, regardless of semantics, are being made available on a daily basis through institutional archives access systems because their users have found a use or interest for them. [8] As Eric Ketelaar notes:

We have to take into consideration that many of the artefacts that in the public perception are considered to be archives function in societal processes of accountability and evidence, just like records and archives-proper. ‘Archives by birth’ and ‘archives by baptism’ are not opposites…[both] serve to understand the past. [9]

What About Information?

In the end, what I find more interesting than the focus on the concepts of transaction, evidence, or process in traditional definitions for records and archives, is that almost all definitions in archival and records management literature are built upon the term ‘information’ but seldom define it further. [10] It is usually expected that the author and reader share the same understanding of what is assumed to be a universal concept.

Similarly, the definition for archival materials provided above relies heavily on the concepts of information and information object, therefore, I would like to elaborate on these further…in a follow-up post next week…

[UPDATE (Jan23, 2007): The broad nature of the definition that I have provided above requires some further elaboration that distinguishes archival materials from the entire set of all recorded information (through the criteria of preservation) but still defines it broadly enough that it may include the variety of published materials which are often part of archival collections - I have done this in a follow-up post today. Next week I will deal with the much more interesting concept of 'information']

[1] Although archival materials deal predominantly with human activity, they can also include information related to natural events, such as video footage of a volcano eruption or a biologist’s field notes detailing the behaviour of a group of animals. In the end, the primary purpose is still to communicate information about the event back to oneself and other humans.

[2] See, for example, the following representative examples:

  1. “A record is recorded information produced or received in the initiation, conduct or completion of an institutional or individual activity and that comprises content, context and structure sufficient to provide evidence of the activity.” [Committee on Electronic Records. Guide for Managing Electronic Records from an Archival Perspective (International Council on Archives, 1997) p. 22.]
  2. “Record – information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.” [International Organization for Standardization. ISO 15489-1 Information and Document Management – Records Management (Part 1: General). (International Organization for Standardization, 2001), p. 3.]
  3. “[Records are] documents which are reliable and complete, that is, able to convey information, capable of being used in a transaction, and of reaching the purposes for which they have been produced.” [Duranti, Luciana. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Scarecrow Press, 1998), p.74.]
  4. “Archives are process-bound information, that is to say: information that is generated by and bound to work processes.” [Thomassen, Theo. ‘Een Korte Introductie in de Archivistiek’ Paradigma: Naar een nieuw paradigma in de archivistiek. (Stichting Archiefpublicaties, 1999), p.12.]

[3] Note that the archival materials themselves are not memories but ‘memory aides.’ They are used to recall and relive past experiences or to re-communicate information about past events. As Menne-Haritz notes, “Archives do not store memory. But they offer the possibility to create memory. Their function is that of amnesia prevention.” [Menne-Haritz, Angelika. “Access – the reformulation of an archival paradigm” Archival Science (1) (Kluwer, 2001).p.59.]

[4] Menne-Haritz. “Access – the reformulation of an archival paradigm”, p.62.

[5] The term ‘archival materials’ is used throughout the International Council on Archives’s International Standard Archival Description (General) to identify the object of archival description. However, it is not actually defined in the accompanying glossary although, interestingly, ‘document’ and ‘record’ are.

[6] ‘Materials’ can be defined as “1. the elements, constituents, or substances of which something is composed or can be made 2. matter that has qualities which give it individuality and by which it may be categorized Merriam-Webster Dictionary (accessed on January 04, 2007).

[7] As is understood, for example, in the concept of the ‘archival function’ which is defined by the International Council on Archives as “that group of related activities contributing to, and necessary for accomplishing the goals of, identifying, safeguarding and preserving archival records, and ensuring that such records are accessible and understandable.” [Committee on Electronic Records. Guide for Managing Electronic Records from an Archival Perspective. (International Council on Archives, 1997), p.24.]

[8] As Theodore Schellenberg has noted, there is “no final or ultimate definition of the term ‘archives’ that must be accepted without change and in preference to all others.” [Schellenberg, T.R.. Modern Archives: principles and techniques. (University of Chicago Press, 1956), p.15.]

[9] Ketelaar, Eric. “The Archive as Time Machine” Proceedings of the DLM-Forum 2002. (INSAR European Archives News, 2002), p.579. ‘Archives by birth’ and ‘Archives by baptism’ is a reference Ketelaar makes to the distinction Marie-Anne Chabin has made in her book Je pense donc j’archive (L’Harmattan, 1999) where the former corresponds ‘to the records and archives in the archivists’ terminology and the latter meaning those documents having no primary record status or value, which have survived and are recognized as having a value to retain a memory (or: memories).’ [Ibid, p.577.]

[10] One of the few exceptions is the InterPARES Project which provides, what turns out to be, a fairly comprehensive definition for ‘information’ in its glossary: “An assemblage of data in comprehensible form capable of communication.” [The InterPARES Project Glossary (InterPARES Project: 2001), p.4. (accessed: January 18, 2007)]. This definition refers to ‘data’, ‘comprehension’, ‘form’ and ‘communication’, all key elements for understanding the concept of information.

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Peter Van Garderen // Jan 25, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    In addition to the idea of archival materials acting as a ‘memory aid’, I’d like to add the concept of them acting as a ‘proxy’ to events. I’ve therefore updated my definition to read: “archival materials are objects in any form that record information which is preserved for future use as a memory aid or proxy for a past event.”

    Archival materials can act as a ‘memory aid’ if a person is present at an original event by providing information that allows them to remember it. If the person was not present, archival materials can act as a proxy for the event by communicating information which allows the person to experience specific details or characteristics of the event.

    For example, I was not present at U2′s performance of ‘I Will Follow’ in 1980 at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, Ireland or the 1988 European Championship Final between Holland and The Soviet Union in Munich, Germany. However, I am fortunately able to access and use recordings (i.e. archival materials) that allow me to experience those events in proxy. As I explain in the next post, the fact that these recordings may have been copied, published and sold for wider distribution does not exclude them from the broad category of archival materials as I have defined them.

    Of course, the proxy is only able to communicate a limited set of details and characteristics about the event. It is not the event itself. By listening to the recording of “I Will Follow” I can hear the music that was played on that day in the Dublin studio but I cannot see what the band members were wearing or smell the cigarettes they may have been smoking in between takes. To be clear, therefore, even if a person was present at a past event, archival materials will never be the actual event. They can only act as a memory aid or as a proxy for the event.*

    * Perhaps one exception to this rule is what Diplomatics calls ‘dispositive documents’ where the moment of an action and the moment of its documentation are “simultaneous and indistinguishable other than conceptually (for example, a sale takes place when and only when a contract of sale is completed), to the point that, in positive law, dispositive documents are actually called ‘acts’.” [Duranti, Luciana. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Scarecrow Press, 1998), p.66]

    Duranti is referring to the document and a very specific juridical act being one and the same. However, the actual event of drafting and signing the sale contract happened in a particular place, at a particular time. The participants in that event will have memories of the details and characteristics of that particular place and time which are far richer than the content, structure or context of the sale contract document can reveal.

  • 2 Peter Van Garderen // Feb 5, 2007 at 10:42 am

    I guess I better define ‘proxy’ as well. Proxy is the power or agency to act as a substitute or replacement for someone or something.

    The Oxford Dictionary defines proxy as the “agency of substitute or deputy” Concise Oxford Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1951).

    The Merriam-Websters’s Dictionary of Law defines proxy as “something serving to replace or substitute for another thing” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law (Merriam-Webster, 1996).

  • 3 Ian McAndrew // Feb 14, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Dude – I finally got a chance to start reading through the links you sent, and so far I like it. Just to shake things up, though, here’s a few thoughts …

    First, I’m good with your updated definition [“archival materials are objects in any form that record information which is preserved for future use as a memory aid or proxy for a past event.”]; and I like the proxy idea especially. It gives a succinct way to refer to the complicated relationship between the actions or events and the documentation of them. However, wouldn’t the definition need further qualification of the circumstances under which the preservation takes place? I’m thinking there could be many areas to explore here — for one, if you are truly going for a utilitarian definition in the context of access, wouldn’t you need to add some kind of qualification like ” … preserved for future use as a memory aid or proxy for a past event, by a person / agency charged with providing access blah blah.” Otherwise, if you don’t have something like this, the access-preservation link becomes implicit rather than explicit. Or, another possibility — what about materials preserved by the creating agency, but which will clearly never make it to an archives? I can definitely see how you would want to keep these included within your scope, on one hand; but, if you do, then there could be the question of what the “archival” in “archival materials” or “archival access systems” refers to.

    And, second, here’s a puzzler: since your U2 example explicitly refers to a studio recording, what are the implications if they used multi-tracking in the recording process–which, in all likelihood, they did. In that case, it seems to me, that listeners are not actually getting a proxy to a particular event, as they would with a live recording in concert, because the version on the CD is actually created as a composite of several layers of recorded performances that were performed sequentially rather than simultaneously … yikes!

    Just thought I’d stir the pot. I’ll continue reading the subsequent entries next week …

  • 4 Peter Van Garderen // Feb 14, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Hey, Ian. Thanks for dropping by to check out my spiel on archival materials and for leaving some interesting comments.

    1) RE: “preservation”: Firstly, I intentionally avoided associating preservation with an archival institution or agency. I want to have a definition that includes all of the archival materials that are stored in personal (home) archives and in other ‘non-official’ archives. Nevertheless, a little further on I am planning to define archival institutions and differentiate them from personal archives and community archives as organizations that have a primary mandate to preserve and provide access to archival materials.

    However, to keep the definition broad, I want to establish very minimal criteria for preservation. In my next post there’s a section called “Why Preservation is Relevant”, where I say:

    “Preservation implies that the long-term value of the information object has been recognized and that steps, however minimal, have been taken to maintain and protect the information object. This is typically done by collecting and grouping related information objects together into an archival collection that is stored for safe-keeping in a designated storage container and repository, whether that is a shoebox in the attic or an acid-free box in a climate-controlled vault.”

    So there should at least be some minimal intention to ‘maintain and protect’ as per the dictionary definition of preservation and some rough grouping together of related material.

    Also, the concept of long-term is also not very useful in helping to define the scope of preservation now that we are dealing with digital information objects where long-term could be as short as 3-5 years. See, for example, Jeff Rothenberg’s oft-quoted, cynical observation that “digital information lasts forever—or five years, whichever comes first.” [Rothenberg, Jeff. Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Information. (RAND Corporation, 1999), p.3. Last accessed on January 30, 2007]

    However, you’ve got a good point about the intention to provide access. Does storing pictures in a shoebox in the attic demonstrate an intention to provide access? It shows an intention to preserve…I have to think this through, thanks for raising it.

    2) RE: U2 example
    You are totally right and I had hoped that no one would notice ;-)

    I wanted to use a popular example and use something that had been published and sold. I guess I will have to clarify that example and say that it is a proxy for the event of recording and mixing the song. Notice that my definition of event above is fairly elastic:
    “The term event is used broadly to mean any type of activity or occurrence that could range from a single transaction (e.g. the purchase of a magazine at a bookstore) to any number of inter-related acts (e.g. all the steps involved in ordering, paying, packaging and shipping magazines to a bookstore).”

    This definition is elastic. It allows the concept of event to stretch and be hierarchical (i.e. consist of multiple sub-events, like laying down the drum track, laying down the guitar track, mixing the tracks, etc.).

    In the end, when I access a copy of U2′s “I Will Follow” I am still dealing with archival material (in the scope of my little world here ;-) , i.e. an object carrying recorded information that has been preserved for my future use as a proxy to the past event of recording and mixing the tracks which were compiled as the song “I Will Follow” over a specific stretch of time sometime in 1980.