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Purpose of archiving

An overview of what archiving is and what purpose archives serve

What is an archive?

As we go about our lives, we undertake actions which result in traces of these actions.

Not unlike a dinosaur leaving an impression in the ground which is the preserved as a fossil by natural phenomena, we generate countless traces of our existence and activities every day. Most of these traces are lost to time, but if we, or someone else, collect and preserve these traces they can provide us with valuable insight into a particular subject. This is ultimately the purpose of archiving, the preservation of these traces of activity. An archive can therefore be thought of as a collection of items that provides evidence of the activities of a subject.

There are many different kinds of archives in the world, connected to many different organisations. For example, the Royal College of Music has an extensive archive of different composers and organisations across music history, and includes original manuscripts of compositions by Mozart, Elgar, and Chopin. Of course archives aren’t limited to music. The Heritage Quay archive, where the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive is stored, has 150 different archive collections, covering local figures, political records, and sporting organisations. These collections might range from a single box to more than 20 boxes of items and documents.

The resources that make up an archive collection tend to be primary resources. That is, unlike published work, the archive focuses on materials that were actually written, created, typed, or owned by the subject. Researchers will use these archive collections to extract meaningful data and observations on a given subject, and use this to make new insights.

Principals of archiving

When undertaking archiving activities, there are two principals that archivists will follow:

  1. Principal of Provenance

This principal states that a history of ownership related to a collections resources should be maintained. This means that collections should be grouped according to their origin, such that collections retain a clear relationship to their point of origin, whether it’s a person, an organisation, or any other kind of administrative group. A collection should also document the original creator and subsequent owners of the collection before they arrived at the archive. This ensures that essential contextual information for understanding the content and history of the collection is retained.

  1. Principal of Original Order

This principal states that archives should be kept in the order they were originally created or used by the subject. Keeping the original order of documents allows the archive to retain important information on how the resources were created, kept, or used.

As you can see, archives differ from other sources of information, since the materials that make them up are often not understood on their own as individual items, but rather as a collection of materials that have a specific relationship to one another. In this way, archives are uniquely valuable to research, in that they provide valuable insight into groups or individuals personal history, and as part of our recorded history they can form the factual basis for our historical narratives.

Over to you

Tell us a bit about your experience with archives? If you haven’t visited an archive in person, in what other media or contexts have you heard of archives?

Further reading

The National Archives (2016) “Archive Principals and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists”

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English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

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