What Are Archives

An archive is a receiving institution which means that it acquires the inactive records of its parent organization and is a repository for historical information on that organization. Archives, in addition to maintaining the records of its parent organization, may collect documents related to a theme or area of interest (e.g. history of a region, theater or religion) and serve as the place where research can be done to learn more about the organization or its affiliated collectionsA library is a collecting institution meaning it gathers published material from a variety of places to serve the informational needs of its patrons. Libraries do not only rely upon information from their parent organization.

In an archive, information is organized according to collections that follow the principle of original order; that is, a collection should be organized according to how the creator or collecting entity arranged the documents in the collection. This is done because, while documents provide the content of a collection, the principle of original order provides the context for a collection. If there is no original order to a collection, then the archivists will organize the collection according to a method that makes the most sense. This method could be by document type, alphabetically or chronologically.  

finding aid is a document that provides a description of a collection and its contents. It includes:

  1. collection size

  2. content list

  3. historical background 
  4. any restrictions that may exist for the collection

Types of Archives

  1. College Archives
  2. Government Archives
  3. Business Archives
  4. Museums
  5. Historical Societies

What are Archivists

The Tasks of an Archivist

  1. Save and Acquire Records: Archivists are responsible to save and obtain records of historical significance.
  2. Organize Records: Archivists organize records to allow documents to be found within a collection.
  3. Disclose Records to the Public: Archivists make records available to the public through the use of finding aids and websites.
  4. Provide Reference Assistance: Archivists provide patrons with information about the records contained in their archives.

Archivists' Code of Ethics

(Society of American Archivists approval given in February 2005 and revised January 2012.)

  1. Professional Relationship: Archivists are fair and honest when dealing with other information professionals, researcher and donors.
  2. Judgement: Archivists must use their judgement when appraising, acquiring and processing collections. This is done to preserve documents and validate their authenticity.
  3. Authenticity: Archivists try to ensure that the records under their care are not tampered with or corrupted. This is done to promote the continued use of records in their care.
  4. Security and Protection: Archivists attempt to protect all the records in their care from damage, theft and vandalism.
  5. Access and Use: Archivists encourage the fair access of the materials in their care.
  6. Privacy: Archivists devise policies that protect the personal information of donors and institutions that may be in the records they care for.
  7. Trust: Archivists should not abuse their position and control over historic documents that patrons may consult in the course of their research.

  See also: American Historical Association and Society of American Archivists


Drexel University. “The Basics: Frequently Asked Questions About Archives.”
http://archives.library.drexel.edu/basicsfaq 2012.

Harvard University. “Frequently Asked Questions.”
https://college.harvard.edu/resources/faq (Last Modified March 23, 2022).

O'Toole, James M. and Richard J. Cox. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.

Pugh, Mary Jo. Providing Reference Services for Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago:  Society of American Archivists, 2005.

Schmidt, Laura. Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research. Society of American Archivists, 2011. (accessed October 7, 2014).

Society of American Archivists. "A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology." http://www2.archivists.org/glossary (accessed on October 17, 2014).
Society of American Archivists.  "SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics."  (accessed October 7, 2014).