Top ways archives are different from libraries

I’m working on a writing assignment about archives and technology and, as is so often the case, I need to discuss how archives and libraries are different. I thought this might make an interesting topic for discussion, so I’m throwing up my draft list here for your comments and additions.

Two caveats–First, I’m defining “libraries” here as just public libraries because I think that’s what comes first to most people’s minds when they think “library.” Second, the differences I’m primarily interested are those that affect how archives and libraries use technology, so if you see some gaps in my list, that might explain it.

My draft list, in no particular order:

  • Libraries collect primarily published materials. Archives collect primarily unpublished items or unusual or rare published materials.
  • Most materials in libraries can be removed from the library. Materials in archives do not usually circulate.
  • Each item in a library collection is usually cataloged. Archival materials are usually cataloged at a higher level of aggregation, such as the collection or series.
  • Libraries share common cataloging data about the objects in their collections; almost no library materials receive original cataloging. Archives cannot usually benefit from shared cataloging data; virtually all archival materials must receive original cataloging.
  • Most people learn how to use a library as part of growing up, either from their parents or in school. Unless they have a specific research need or take a particular class in college, most people will never learn how to use an archives.
  • The purpose or value of most library materials does not require interpretation. The purpose or value of many archival materials can only be understood when their function and historical context is understood.
  • Libraries welcome children and teenagers and may not require adult supervision. Most archives have strict guidelines for the use of materials by children or teenagers.
  • People use libraries for many purposes that don’t center on books–for example as public gathering spaces, for free Internet access, to pick up tax forms, to obtain music and video entertainment, and as resources for educational experiences for children. People rarely use archives for purposes that don’t center on archival materials.
  • Most librarians have formal training in library science. Many people working in archives have limited or no formal training in archival science.
  • Most libraries are part of larger regional systems, which often provide technical or logistical support for all the libraries in the system. Many archives are small independent organizations with no larger organizational support system.
  • The library community has a large marketplace of vendors who understand their needs and supply many well-developed technology products to meet their needs. The archival community has few vendors who understand their needs and very few technology products designed specifically for their needs.
  • Many people come to a library with a simple information need that can be met by a simple interaction with a reference librarian. Most people come to an archives with complex information needs that require more extensive interactions with one or more archivists.
  • To help their customers, librarians rely primarily on their skills at using information discovery tools rather than their own knowledge of the library’s collections. To help their customers, archivists rely primarily on the knowledge about their holdings they have developed in working with them rather than on searching information sources.

I could probably come up with some others, but the list seems to be getting a bit long. What do you think? Are my statements accurate? Do you have others to add?

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3 thoughts on “Top ways archives are different from libraries”

  1. I think this list is a pretty good start, although this will higly depend on the country or archival tradition one is living and working in.

    For example, I live and work in the Netherlands. Here we do have large regional archives that can have several locations in a certain work area. Staff most of the times is educated through several years of archival study at a bachelor or master level. Finally, since in the Netherlands archives try to reach out to a broad audience in many ways, we get more and more customers with a ‘simple information need’, and rely more and more on skills at using information discovery tools. Still less than the average librarian maybe, but a lot more than any archivist, say, five years ago.

    Also I miss some differences between archives and books. For one, each archival document is a unique document, where books often are published in many copies. A book is an end-product, where archives are by-products of work processes, which explains their unique nature.

    These points also explain, for example, why context for an archives is so important, or why cataloging is different than for books.

    Books are easy, archives are hard.. 😉

    Also I would argue whether you would like to mention ‘differences’ like whether people learn how to use a library or archives as part of growing up, or whether there is a large marketplace of vendors, since these are no actual differences between libraries and archives.

    Hope this is of any help to you.

  2. My quick answer to a “layperson” (such as when in the dentist’s chair or being intrduced to a distant cousin by marriage and asked “what is an archivist?”) is an attempt to tie the answer to things the person probably has some concept of as you do in “Most people learn how…” I use libraries and museums. An archives is kind of a cross between a library and a museum. It is like a library in that it holds information, but it is like a museum in that what it holds is unique/valuable/rare/special unlike the published material generally held in a library which you could find in many other libraries. On the other hand, sometimes I just have to say the word archives to get a nod of recognition; people seem to have trouble making the jump from the word archivist to the word archives. I suppose that’s an argument for the archIvist pronunciation, but that just sounds very wrong to me.

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