Just what is an archives, anyway?

This month, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, along with many other archives across the Smithsonian and around the nation, will be celebrating American Archives Month. The purpose of this celebration is "to raise awareness about the value of archives and archivists." We write a lot about what an archivist does on this blog, but, for those of you who don't know and are afraid to ask:  Just what is an archives, anyway? First of all, unbeknownst to most word processors, "an archives" is a grammatically correct phrase. "Archives" is one of those words that can be either singular or plural, though it is relatively common to drop the "s" when referring to the singular. "Archives" can refer to a collection of archival materials, the facility in which the materials are stored, or the organization that collects and maintains them. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to focus on archives as collections. An archives is not a random grouping of material—rather it is a set, or multiple sets, of materials with a common bond. The materials may have been created by the same person or organization or they may have different creators, but they relate to the same topic. [caption id="attachment_8442" align="aligncenter" width="430" caption="Some examples of what your personal archives might look like, Photo courtesy of Jennifer Wright."]Some examples of what your personal archives might look like, Photo courtesy of Jennifer Wright.[/caption] More importantly, an archives is the result of intention. Several memory cards of photographs that you haven't found time to sort, or a bunch of birthday cards that you haven't gotten around to recycling is not automatically an archives. An archives is a group of materials that someone intentionally decided was unique and had enduring value. To truly be an archives, someone must also make a commitment to preserving those materials in a meaningful way. [caption id="attachment_8444" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="Is this the image that pops into mind when you think of an archives? Off-site archival storage previously used by the Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2008, Photo courtesy of Jennifer Wright."]Is this the image that pops into mind when you think of an archives? Off-site archival storage previ[/caption] Many people hear the word "archives" and immediately picture a facility, often an image of a dark, dusty room, probably in an attic or basement, with rows of shelves full of old and fragile boxes and volumes. But, whether you realize it or not, I'm betting you have one or more archives of your own. Do you create photo albums or scrapbooks or put only select images on a photo-sharing site? Do you save every card you've ever received from your grandmother, but don't even think twice about getting rid of those holiday cards with pre-printed signatures? Perhaps you keep programs for every play and concert in which your child participates. Or maybe you have a box of ticket stubs for every concert you've been to. An archives doesn't have to be large and official and it doesn't have to be of scholarly interest. It can simply be a collection of selected materials that evoke special memories from your own life. So this October, I invite you to learn all about what we in the archival profession do and I hope that you'll be able to apply some of that knowledge to maintaining, preserving, or even creating your own personal archives. You can ask Smithsonian archivists, conservators, and historians questions about your home collections on Thursday, October 21st, 10 am to 5 pm, on Facebook, or on Friday, October 22nd, 10 am to 5 pm in Washington, D.C. Learn more here.

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.