The increasingly common use of “archive” as a verb



This issue comes up pretty regularly, and it’s on fire this morning on Twitter as a result of this post on ReadWriteWeb (which certainly has other issues too). As I said on Twitter, I hate the use of “archive” as a verb. It makes my flesh crawl. It has been my experience that people who talk about “archiving” frequently have no idea what constitutes actual preservation in an archives. I have seen it used often by IT people referring to creating a backup copy of digital information. I question whether this usage is ever uttered or written by someone who actually has training as an archivist.

I think there are two important points to consider in this discussion. First, the ship has sailed. People are using “archive” as a verb, and that’s all there is to it. They use it as a synonym for “keep” or “preserve.” Maybe they understand what it means to keep or preserve something in an archives, maybe they don’t. Most archivists hate this, and will never use “archive” as a verb, but the world doesn’t care about what archivists like. I imagine there are/were similar conversations among museum people about the word “curate” new being fashionable to describe a cornucopia of selection activities.

Second, and much more importantly, the common use of the word can be seen as an opportunity. An opportunity to question and if necessary educate. What do you mean when you say you are going to “archive” something? It’s an opportunity to talk about what’s really involved with preservation. And, as the wise Tom Scheinfeldt pointed out on Twitter: “I wouldn’t trust that people who use ‘preserve’ know any better than people who use ‘archive.'”

Isn’t this just coming back to one of our long-standing issues–that archivists need to do a better job making people aware of the work we are trained to do?

What do you think? Is this a nitpicky archivist thing and we should just “get over it” and/or is this symptomatic of a larger trend? If “citizen archivists” and IT people can “archive” things, then what is the role of the professional archivist? Do you agree that this is “teachable moment,” or is the ship that has sailed named the Titanic, and there’s no hope for education?

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23 thoughts on “The increasingly common use of “archive” as a verb”

  1. I should add that I am aware that the verb “to archive” has a specific meaning in computer science, as confirmed by the OED: “in Computing, to transfer to a store containing infrequently used files, or to a lower level in the hierarchy of memories, esp. from disc to tape.” So if an IT person is using it in this sense, it is, of course, correct from their perspective. However, confusion can and I’m sure does arise if people (including perhaps that IT person) think this is equivalent to the primary meaning from the OED: “To place or store in an archive.” Language is full of complexity and always evolving.

  2. It’s not just the use of archive as a verb that bothers me! Thanks to blogs and websites (especially newspaper sites), “archive” now also correctly means a comprehensive list of links to everything *currently* available online (usually with no versioning). The ship has definitely sailed on this too.

    In my work at, which contains a lot of digitized archival material, I have to constantly explain the difference between access and preservation. I need to manage the expectations of our partners (no, scanning your materials doesn’t mean it is safe forever) and educate users (usually faculty and students who give us uninformed compliments about “preserving” something they’re interested in) on the difference.

    This dichotomy can be a useful way to frame conversations with non-archivists about how we archivists understand archives.

  3. It also means to make a single large file out of a bunch of small files; then you compress it, and you get a zip or a rar “archive” … which is exactly “To place or store in an archive.” :), except the noun means something else.

  4. On this, the Good Ship Titanic
    They speak of archive and preserve
    And of either, knowing nothing.
    “It’s digital”, I hear you say,
    We’ll tag it algorithmically,
    As if that makes it all okay.
    No more to curate or deconstruct
    The lexical skeletons are flayed and exhumed.
    The teaching moment’s fleeting,
    Their use of words, with pride gigantic,
    Vocabularies subsumed
    ‘Til what remains’ pedantic.
    Our profession gets what we deserve.

  5. Great post Kate, you’re getting at the heart of what we mean when we talk about “digital archiving.” Misuse of archive as a verb IS definitely a teachable moment, an opportunity for us as archivists to assert our place in the digital records continuum. Just because we can save a copy of everything doesn’t mean we should, at the expense of archival appraisal. The RWW post you linked to was excellent as well…the author points out that “The presence of human archivists may be more important than it ever was…Any logical positivism of data collection is doomed.”

    Positivism in traditional archives is a fading trend, why is it prevalent in digital archival theory? We need to move past the “save everything digital” paradigm and re-assert the role of archival appraisal for born digital materials!

  6. Personally, the use of “archive” as a verb does not bother me. However, the issue behind it—that the public often do not understand the difference between backup/data storage and archival practice—points most definitely to a teaching moment. *BUT* we, as archivists and archival scholars, also must ask where traditional archival practices/theories may need to be altered in a digital world.

  7. And is it archive or archives? I’ve seen arguments and justifications for both from within the archival community. Ultimately, the English language is ad hoc; terms’ meaning is based on use, and attempts to limit definitions through etymology, explanation, or other means are doomed to failure.

    Some words have contradictory meanings based on use. (Some use “document” to me a non-record, while others use “document” and “record” interchangeably.) What we have, as a result, is a bit of confusion as words are overloaded with variant, different meanings. (I will grant that some uses are just plain wrong; but when it becomes widespread, that’s no longer the case.)

    Better than using any one word, I’ve found it’s better to use a short phrase.

  8. Ah, Richard the word maven! Yes–yes to you and everyone else (except perhaps, Dennis) what word is used is not the most important thing. People do use “archive” to mean lots of things, but as long as we make sure they still know about our kind of archive/s, I think we’re good. We’re not abandoning the ship, Dennis, don’t worry!

    From some comments on Twitter, I wonder also if this is a generation thing too. Perhaps younger archivists are coming into the profession accepting this as part of the professional vocabulary?

  9. See Arthur A. Leavitt, “What Are Archives”, American Archivist 24:2 (April 1961), p. 175-178. Also, Jean Dryden talks about the profession’s ongoing angst of language in “Tower of Babel,” in Archival Science (cite not handy).

  10. /me, still smiling while the rocket launcher is firmly targeted upon the smoke trial of the departing Titanic, utters:

    “Words mean things to us all,
    Their meanings, like mud trails after the rain,
    Still lead us on…but to who-knows-where?
    If the map changes, then only the
    Cartographer will know
    From whence we came
    And where we head.
    For there be dragons.”

    Surely, English is one of the most flexibly-evolving languages out there. Not sure if it’s completely “generational”…I hear and see pockets of resistance and counter-insurgency here and there, skipping across generations…gives me hope.

    I see it, too, in the attitudes ABOUT the professions (have to use the plural here, as I am also referring to the shifts in the kindred professions of libraries and museums). Maybe it’s about the tools usage. I’m constantly amused by comments of how “older” generations don’t use certain technologies when, in fact, many of us do…and in manner to put those critics to shame…shades of the “digital natives/digital immigrants” debate.

    It is not sufficient to dismiss what may seem contrarian; the diametric opposition is necessary to maintain a balance…or to put it in 3 dimensional terms, a more Hegelian dialectic that anticipates a Heisenbergian paradox…

  11. I’ve used the terms “archiving” and “to archive” for as long as I can remember; in fact, I can’t imagine not using “archive” as a verb. Eric Ketelaar, Ramesh Srinivasan, Verne Harris and many other of our most interesting participants in archival discourse use it too.

    No matter how amorphously defined or sometimes misconstrued, the verb form of archive is actually quite necessary, insofar it expresses what we do as active rather than passive, dynamic rather than stagnant, a process rather than a mere product. It also connotes a process, the sum of the discrete activities that are its parts – appraisal, description, curation, preservation – a conceptual whole.

  12. I definitely believe the misuse of ‘archive’ is a teachable moment, especially when we hear it from our allies in libraries, museums and IT. I twitch whenever one of my colleagues refers to my daily activities as ‘archiving’. I wouldn’t summarize their work as ‘librarianing’ or ‘computerizing’…or, um… ‘musing’ now would I?

    All of us (archivists, librarians, museum curators, IT staff etc.) are all responsible for many activities that require highly specialized skills and knowledge; often to achieve the same objectives: acquisition and appraisal, preservation and access,description, teaching and education, reference etc.
    So when a colleague talks about me ‘archiving’ all day, I contextualize the statement with what I am actually doing (appraising a recent accrual, digitizing photographs, managing donor expectations etc.).

    That said, when I talk to patrons, donors or students and they talk about ‘archiving’ I try to do what a previous commentator mentioned : use phrases and examples to explain the concept. Usually I try to replace the archive-as-verb with ideas like ‘organically generating records’ (to which a student sarcastically responded “Sounds like compost”) and ‘keeping what is important’.
    I think as long as we keep talking back to the use of the ‘archive-as-verb’ in a firm but constructive way, we can start disseminating a more accurate slate of verbs to our colleagues and the public.

    Alternatively, we could develop an elaborate metaphor for the digital records continuum/archival process based on the compost association.
    “Archives : distilling today’s records to fertilize the minds of tomorrow!”.

    (That idea can be filed as a ‘Friday afternoon post’.)

  13. To corruptly paraphrase:

    “Fame is but the breath of the masses (‘everybody says that!’),
    And that oft unwholesome.”

    That a term achieves use amongst the “laypeople” does not change the history…we, of all people, should be mindful of that. And as Kate so kindly put it, it is a teachable moment. Advocacy is eternally vigilant.

  14. But we are not ‘laypeople’ – there is a diversity of opinion within the professional community, by which I mean trained, degreed, teaching and published archivists (and Kate, many of us are past 40 and decades into careers !) . And I think the analogy to librarians is telling – is there not a poverty of language there as well? Many ‘regular’ people think of a librarian as anyone who works in a library. How many people outside of the field or academia know what ‘technical services’ is? And if I have a room in my home called a ‘library’ does that imply it’s the same as the NYPL or LoC? Should they be concerned?

    Language is complex, dependent on context, usage, evolves organically and virally – for better or worse – to meet needs for description and definition in a rapidly-changing world. I’m fascinated by this sort of discussion (as with last year’s ‘citizen archivist’ one), which are really about identity. Ultimately that identity must rest on more than a particular word or phrase, but rather on broader, richer, more creative ways of communicating and engaging with the wider world; and which will, I think, require more words, not fewer.

  15. I’m not an archivist. However, when I hear archive used as a verb, it has a richness to me beyond perhaps, what is has for a casual computer user. Maybe that’s because I volunteered in a museum for a few months; maybe it’s because I read blogs written by archivists or because I’ve used physical archives in different settings. In fact, I’d say that the authors of the linguistics blogs I read would find your blog post fascinating. Ah, see, there’s one I can’t stand–the use of blog to describe both a weblog and a weblog post, as in “I wrote a blog about the misuse of the word ‘archive’.” Yuck.

  16. Readers may also be interested in this post from Fast Company, “Content Curation: It’s Going to Be Huge” (, which includes the following:

    “I feel like there are a lot of bitter librarians out there,” Scime told me. It’s ironic, in part, because all her early training was in library sciences.

    But the buzz around curation threatens more than librarians–there’s a posse of PhD’s with pitchforks and torches that didn’t much like what Scime had to say.

    What heresy did Scime actual dare to blog about? “Curation has a distinguished history in cultural institutions. In galleries and museums, curators use judgment and a refined sense of style to select and arrange art to create a narrative, evoke a response, and communicate a message. As the digital landscape becomes increasingly complex the techniques and principles of museum curatorship can inform how we create online experiences–particularly when we approach content.”

    Scime today is the Content Strategy Lead at HUGE in Brooklyn–whose clients include CNN IKEA, Pepsi, Jet Blue, IVillage, and Penton Media.

    For a former student of Curatorial studies and information sciences to embrace the democratization of the word “curation” rattled some cages.

    “When I was in library school it was very oriented toward managing digital collections, even archives. It’s sort of the “Boomer” versus “Gen X”, generational split.”

  17. Most of you won’t use “archive” as a verb but have no problem using “access” as one in the same post. Irony! But what about turning verbs into nouns? Have you ever “taken a nap” or “grabbed a bite”? Neither nap or bite is a noun. Still, I get your point, the first time I heard “why don’t you google it” I kind of lost it.

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