Discover archives and our profession

Archives and record keepers

How do you know where you come from? What informs your view about yourself, your family, your organisation, your region, your country? The answer is of course that it comes from memory, both of the individual and the society. But what makes that memory? Well, there are a range of sources for memory that surround us all. Oral recollection, language, architecture, land marks - they all play their part. But there is one massive resource which most of us rely on to learn about the past, possibly without realising we are doing so. That resource is archives. 


What are archives?

So, what are archives? Put briefly archives are the documentary by-product of human activity maintained for their long-term value. Ever since writing was invented humans have recorded their intentions, discussion, decisions and actions. As an example, imagine if you were attending a meeting. There would be an agenda of the issues to be covered, reports and supporting information to assist in the meeting, presentations made to the meeting, minutes noting down what was said and decided, your own notes of the meeting, perhaps your train ticket for travelling to the meeting. As you can see that one meeting has produced a trail of documents which provide evidence to answer questions about who, what, how, why, where and when. Now at the time these documents are used to conduct the business required by the meeting. But later on after that business has passed the documents can provide a wealth of detail about past events that. That is when the documents become archives and can take on a relevance to people far beyond those involved in the original meeting, possibly centuries from when the event took place.


Archives have several characteristics:

  • They are only retained if they are considered to be of long-term historical value. This can be difficult to assess but what it means is that archive collections do not and cannot hold every document ever created.
  • They are not created consciously as a historical record. Their strength is that they are a contemporaneous record and must be viewed in the light of who drew up that document and why.
  • Documents do not have to be ‘old' to be an archive, just no longer required for the use for which they were created. 
  • They come in a wide range of analogue and digital media - not just paper documents. Archives encompass written documents, electronic resources (including web sites and email), photographs and film, and sound recordings.


You may now have realised that archives are all around us and perhaps they are so prevalent that we fail to notice them, like the air we breathe. As we can see archives can come from many sources including:

  • Government - supranational, national, regional, local
  • Courts and judicial bodies
  • Businesses
  • Trades unions and workers bodies
  • Religious organisations
  • Universities and schools
  • Military bodies
  • Theatres, film makers and performing groups
  • Charities, campaigning bodies and voluntary organisations
  • Communities
  • Families
  • Individuals

To see the sheet depth of archives why not look at the Memory of the World Register? This is managed by the United Nation and highlights some of the world's finest archives and is being added to all the time.


For archives to be of value to society they must be a trusted resource. To achieve this they must have the following qualities:

  • Authenticity - the record is what it claims to be, created at the time documented, and by the person that the document claims to be created by. 
  • Reliability - they are accurately representing the event, although it will be through the view of the person or organisation creating that document.
  • Integrity - the content is sufficient to give a coherent picture.  Sadly not all archives are complete
  • Usability - the archive must be in an accessible location and usable condition.  Earthquakes, hurricanes and war, for example, can all render archives useless.

If an archive is going to be authentic and reliable then we need to preserve its context to understand how, why and who created it, its content and its format (the way that it is presented as a document).


What we should remember is that at no point can we regard an archive as ‘the truth' (whatever we mean by ‘truth'), only as a contemporaneous record from an individual or organisation with a particular level of involvement and point of view. As users of archives we must be aware of this context when interpreting archives as well as how our own experiences and culture affect our reading of an archival resource.

Clearly archives need good care to ensure these precise and sometimes fragile qualities are maintained. But who is going to make sure that records are cared for in such as way that these qualities and information are maintained? That is the role of the Archivist or Record Keeper - someone with specific skills of collecting, managing and providing access to archives and records for the long term. In particular they:

  • Ensure the survival of the ‘Provenance' - maintain information about the creator of the archives in order to preserve the context and ensure survival of meaningful content within the archive.
  • Keep the ‘Original Order' i.e. keep the records in the arrangement which they were put by the creating body so as to retain relationships between records and thus provide evidence about how the creator carried out their activities. This can be easier said than done if the creator has long since disappeared and archives have been moved around or heavily used.


What's the difference between an Archivist and a Record Keeper? Essentially there is none as they are both responsible for the survival and use of archives. However, in some organisations and countries there is the record keeper who is responsible for the survival  from creation of the record through to the archive stage, whereas the archivist tends to be responsible for the record at the point at which it becomes an archive. Both will have the same skills set and knowledge to ensure the physical survival and intellectual integrity of the archive.

In some countries, such as the UK, the archive/record keeping professions are professionalised with clear routes of entry, qualification and professional standards as well as representative bodies. However, in other regions there is not an explicit professional framework and people work to certain established practices. It should be remembered that around the globe there are many volunteers and other enthusiastic individuals who care for archives but would not realise that they are in essence archivists.


Whatever the qualifications or title, anyone responsible for archives will be seeking to achieve a number of aims:

  • Create a coherent collection through well-informed and pro-active selection and collecting
  • Effective collection management which ensures the long-term physical survival of collections, the creation of reliable and detailed information about the content of the collections and sustainable care to ensure the long-term survival of collections.
  • A coherent access programme which ensures that anyone that wants to use the contents of the archive can easily find out about the collection and access its contents in a way convenient to their own needs. 
  • Collaboration with others to exploit synergies between archive collections and maximise opportunities for using and preserving collections.

To achieve these aims those responsible for archives may well work in collaboration with other professionals such as conservators, information technology experts, educators and artists, as well as working closely with users to ensure collections and services are relevant to their needs.


Archives are for life and for living. They are not about getting lost in the past but about understanding the present Being an archivist or record keeper is a fascinating role. There are not many jobs where it can be said that what you do today will matter hundreds of years from now. An archivist or record keeper needs a passion for history, an eye for detail and a strong commitment to service. The return is to be a custodian of society's memory.