What are archives?

Archives are the documentary by-product of human activity retained for their long-term value. 

They are contemporary records created by individuals and organisations as they go about their business and therefore provide a direct window on past events. They can come in a wide range of formats including written, photographic, moving image, sound, digital and analogue. Archives are held by public and private institutions and individuals around the world.


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.

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 analogic 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 sheer 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.