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Archival Materials: A Practical Definition (con’t)

January 23rd, 2007 · 1 Comment · PhD Research, Terms & Definitions

Yesterday I posted and explained a practical definition for archival materials that works within the scope and context of my research on archives access systems: “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.” The broad nature of this definition requires some further elaboration to distinguish 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.

Why Preservation is Relevant

The intentional preservation of an information object is a key factor in determining whether it can be defined as archival material. 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. [1] 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.

The requirement that archival materials are preserved helps to distinguish them from the majority of other types of information objects which are ever-present in the modern world. For example, a stack of magazines on a coffee table cannot be considered to be archival materials. Even though they have been set aside to be read at some later point, no real effort has been made to preserve (i.e. protect and maintain) them over time. However, if these magazines are sorted into binders or magazine boxes and neatly stacked on a bookshelf, then these could be thought of as archival materials (i.e. “objects in any form that record information which is preserved for future use as a memory aid”).

Why Publication is Not Relevant

The example of magazines was intentionally chosen to illustrate a second characteristic of this definition which deviates from traditional distinctions between published or bibliographic materials (such as a magazine) and unpublished materials, records or archives (such as the drafts and notes used to prepare a magazine article). The definition of archival materials provided here is focused primarily on the ability of information to serve as a memory aid and not specifically as authentic evidence of a transaction or business process. It is also not concerned with the number of copies or manifestations of the information which may have been created and distributed. Likewise it is not concerned with determining if the creator of the information intended to keep it private or public.

This establishes archival materials as a broad super-set of information objects which may include both records and bibliographic materials as sub-sets. [2] Again, the rationale is to provide a practical, inclusive definition that reflects the reality of current archives access systems that provide access, for example, to collections of local newspapers, pamphlets, programmes, brochures, postcards and posters alongside collections of personal papers and business records. [ update (25Jan07): note additional comment#1 below]

This broader definition also reflects the progressive blurring in the digital environment of the distinctions between information objects that are published, printed, or copied and those that are not. Confusion about whether a webpage is a publication or a record is one good example. A particular webpage may very well be both but, under the definition provided here, it is only archival material if it is preserved for future use. [3]

Likewise, the thousands of users that download a digitized copy of the Magna Carta document from the British Library website are aware that they are not handling the original document but they are not really concerned about whether what they are downloading should be called a manuscript, a publication, or a certified copy. [4] They are, however, quite happy to get access to a memory aid that communicates and commemorates important ideas and events in the history of England and Western democracy.

The current disparity between the respective concepts of archives and publications can probably be traced to the concurrent growth in the modern age of both public administration bureaucracies and the publishing industry that arose after the invention of the printing press. [5] According to Ernst Posner, the distinction in classical times was less of an issue, with the communication and access to information being the paramount concern. Records from the Greek administrations were routinely transcribed onto stone slabs (steles) and displayed publicly:

To Greeks deviations from the exact wording did not diminish the authenticity of the copied text; a record on imperishable stone was deemed of greater value than the perishable original in the archives; and, in addition, the text on the stele was easier of access, just as the text of the modern published law is easier to use than the original act in the archives. [6]

Back to Something Practical and Realistic

Similarly, the definition of archival materials presented here is derived from the viewpoint of access and use rather than authenticity or evidence. [7] This means that the scope of this research project may include information objects that do not fit the stricter definition for ‘record’ and may conflict with traditional distinctions between archives and bibliographic materials. Again, the main rationale is to have a pragmatic definition that recognizes all those materials which, regardless of semantics, are being preserved in archival collections and are made available through archives access systems because their users have found a use or interest for them. To repeat a statement from Eric Ketelaar that I quoted yesterday:

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. [8]

Let’s Move on to ‘Information’

O.K. I had to clear that up. Now I can move on. As I mentioned yesterday, I consider the concept of information to be much more relevant or fundamental to a definition of archival materials than business processes, transactions or evidence. I will post about the concept of information next week…

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[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘preserve’ as “1 : to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction : PROTECT. 2 a : to keep alive, intact, or free from decay b : MAINTAIN 3 a : to keep or save from decomposition.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary [accessed (January 23, 2007)].

[2] Following this argument implies that a ‘library’ is a type of archival collection that consists of predominately published materials.

[3] According to digital preservation best practices, just publishing a webpage (i.e. posting it to an IP address available via the global Domain Name Service) would not be considered preserving it. Additional steps would need to be taken to capture, store and maintain it over the long-term.

[4] Interestingly, the document preserved at the British Library is one of four known surviving copies, each differing slightly in size, shape and text. In turn, Diplomatics may refer to each of these four ‘copies’ as ‘originals’: “There may be more than one original of the same document created either at the same time or at subsequent times. This happens in cases where there are reciprocal obligations (contracts between two or more parties, treaties, conventions)” Duranti, Luciana. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Scarecrow, 1998), p.49.

[5] Which led eventually to the emergence of archival science and library science as distinct yet related disciplines where the former focused predominantly on the context of information creation and the latter on access to mass-produced information.

[6] Posner, Ernst. Archives in the Ancient World (Society of American Archivists, 2003), p.101.

[7] Which are, of course, still of critical importance if the archival materials are being used as records or legal evidence.

[8] 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.

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Peter Van Garderen // Jan 25, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Reflecting on the merger of Canada’s National Library and Archives in 2002, Ian Wilson (the National Librarian and Archivist) notes that users: “want access to the extraordinary riches we hold and [] don’t frankly care if something comes from a library or an archive. I suspect they don’t care if it comes from a museum either. They want access to the stuff — a highly technical term so common to all of our institutions. They want access to the content, the stuff.” [Wilson, Ian. “Converging Content” Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings (Archives & Museum Informatics, 2005) (last accessed on January 25, 2007)]

    Archivists and librarians emerged as specialists in the modern age to deal pragmatically with practical administrative issues. The theory and institutions, which dogmatically locked terminology and practices into place, followed later. For example, in discussing the history of the Dutch Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, Eric Ketelaar notes that the Manual was proposed as a methodology or a best practice that was open for discussion amongst colleagues. “In practice, however, the rules were seen as inviolable dogmas and what was meant to be an instrument became a bible for archivists; the methodology became a doctrine.” [Ketelaar, Eric. “Time future contained in time past. Archival science in the 21st century” Journal of the Japan Society for Archival Science (1), pp.3-4]

    The new, unprecedented wave of information distribution and access which has been brought about by the Internet and its related technologies have once again created pragmatic administrative issues for the management of information collections. It is very likely that the practical solutions that are implemented to address these issues will conflict with some of the existing theory and institutions. Ketelaar points out that this should be expected. As a science, archival theory “examines received notions for their pertinence and relevance, it is continuously speculating, experimenting, inventing, changing and improving”. [Ketelaar, Eric. “Time future contained in time past", pp.2-3]

    Wilson is more direct: “The web world has little patience with institutional walls and boundaries, and even less patience with an information priesthood that tries to insert itself between the inquirer and the source material, or which seeks to limit direct access…The web enables us to overcome the territorial boundaries that have arisen over the decades — when we broke up the past, ripped it apart and put some in museums and some in archives and libraries, some in historic sites. The web can enable us to overcome those boundaries and reassemble the past in web world.” [Wilson, Ian. "Converging Content"]