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Challenges of archiving

An overview of some of the challenges present in archiving

Archives provide a valuable resource for researchers and are essential in developing and refining our collective knowledge. However, there are a number of challenges to managing or cataloguing an archive that are worth acknowledging.


The first thing that needs to be stated is that the effectiveness of an archive relies on a well catalogued inventory of the archive contents. Developing an archive catalogue helps researchers determine the content of the archive and to provide an overview of what the archive specifically consists of. However, developing such a catalogue can take a lot of time and labour, resources that might be very limited. Additionally, accurately cataloguing a collection might require specialist knowledge on the subject to account for every object in the collection accurately, knowledge that the archivist might not have access to. As such, archivists will often work with the owner of the collection to develop the catalogue, or work with a researcher that specialises in the subject to determine the accuracy of their observations.

Deterioration and natural disasters

Resources in archive collections are as prone to natural deterioration as anything else. As such, archives will use special archival boxes, acid free paper, folders and other packaging materials to reduce exposure to things like light, humidity, and insects which can accelerate their decay. For this reason, most archives will have a strong room, a purpose build facility to store archive collections to protect them from these threats, as well as larger natural disasters such as fire, flooding, and even earthquakes.

Challenges to the principal of provenance

While as we mentioned, archivists will always attempt to ensure that the history of an archive collection is maintained, there are some issues that can arise with this. Firstly, information relating to the lineage of the collection might be complex, if the collection has passed through many hands before arriving at the archive. As it has progressed, other objects might have been mixed in with the main collection, making it difficult to ascertain if an object belongs to the subject or has accidentally been added by one of the subsequent handlers. In the field of digital archiving there is a more open question, and an archivist must determine the relationship of the digital object to that of the original. Does a digitised collection constitute a new collection of materials, or should it be views as a part of the original collection, even though it might not have been a part of that collection when the objects were created?

Challenges to the principal of original order

Similarly, with many archives the order of resources might have been changed many times between the subject using the resource and it arriving in the archive. As such, the principal of original order will be used for the cataloguing of the collection, but this might or might not be related to the use or creation of these objects by the subject.

We can keep these challenges in mind as we talk about the Roberto Gerhard Digital Archive in future lessons, as many of these issues had to be addressed by the research team!

####Over to you

What other challenges might you encounter when working with archives?

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English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

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