What are archives good for?

I have a guilty conscience for not writing sooner about something Merrilee posted on July 15 over at the hangingtogether blog. She wrote:

Susan Allen (Associate Director of the Getty Research Institute and Chief Librarian of the Getty Research Library) has started a list of reasons (“beyond sentimentality”) that special collections are important. I asked if she would share her list, and she agreed. Take a look, and if there are things that are not on this list, please add them in the comments. Are there other, similar lists elsewhere? Let us know!

The list of seventeen things is an odd one. (Please go look at it now. See what I mean?) Its title is “Ways in Which Scholars/Librarians Use Rare Materials.” This seems to me to be a much more specific list than one devoted to why special collections are important. Obviously special collections/archives may have value other than for their usefulness to scholars or librarians. I also found some of items in the list confusing, probably since they had been lifted from such a specific context.

But the purpose of this post is not critique Merrilee’s list (which is actually Susan Allen’s, I believe), it is to address her question. Can we add to this list and do you know of other similar lists out there?

So, our purpose is to identify the value (that is the way in which the collections may be used) of special collections. For the purposes of this exercise, I suggest that we just lump archives and special collections together, and if you have thoughts about why that shouldn’t be done, please share your comments. Trying not to duplicate what’s already on the list (as I understand it), here is what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Use of original materials provides users a tangible link to the past which can create an emotional connection for the user.

2. Archives and special collections contain first person accounts that document historical events.

3. Archives and special collections contain materials that document the lives of historically underrepresented groups.

4. Archives and special collections contain materials that document the use and transformation of our environment over time.

5. Archives and special collections materials contain information about past events that can be used by citizens, business, and government to support their business functions.

6. Archives and special collections can be used by educators at all levels to teach across all disciplines.

7. Archival materials can have evidential value.

I could probably break each of these down into many smaller values, but I think that covers quite a bit of ground. I know my readers are a knowledgeable and creative group, so I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of comments on this question: What are archives and special collections good for?

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14 thoughts on “What are archives good for?”

  1. 8. Archives and Special Collections contain materials that document legislative and legal action that pertains to local, state, and national government. Public access to these records is integral to our ability as citizens to exercise our rights.

  2. Hi Renna,

    Many would say that documentation of rights and accountability are, of course, the #1 value of archives–but is that true of special collections? I wasn’t sure, that’s why I left if off.


  3. Archives serve as a source of accountability, documenting the actions, deeds, and consequences of those in leadership positions.

  4. To follow up on Kate’s question, I would say that special collections can also serve as a source of accountability. I would argue that any situation in which a person’s individual decision(s) can affect others, the documentation of this decision-making process is valuable. Special Collections can be used to show this thought/action process as well as the outcome.

  5. There are also times when the accountability or proof needed to demonstrate to government when a person’s birth date is (e.g. for social security purposes) or that they lived in a certain area at a relevant time (e.g. for restitution in environmental suits) cannot be demonstrated through government records–but special collections may hold records, historic city directories, or other documents that do demonstrate the proof needed. There are a number of such literal cases I’m aware of where the special collections route proved the only viable source.

  6. 5. Archives and special collections materials contain information about past events that can be used by citizens, business, and government to support their business functions.

    I’d like to add to this, and Kathleen Roe’s comment, that because organizational archives often make their way into ‘Special Collections,’ SpColls not only provide information about past events, but also provide continuity, especially for grassroots movements, that would quite possibly be lost without the efforts and resources of Special Collections departments and archivists.

    I also see it as a reciprocal relationship between the archivists who care for these materials, and the movement participants within the various communities. The value of Special Collections is the continuity, and perhaps even legitimacy, it may provide for a movement that has deep roots and a broad reach; the power, energy and lasting impact of the movement contributes to the overall value of the Special Collection, especially when archivists are creative and proactive in interpreting the impact to the public.

    Great post!

  7. Nice list. I keep running things against it and they keep falling within the broad categories. One that might be added is:

    * archives and special collections are physical representations of spiritual actions

    You have not paid much attention to the darkside, however. Archives and special collections can do all these things but they can also:

    * serve as political tools or sources of propoganda

    * serve to legitimize or deligitimize official or organizational actions

    * serve to forward “official stories” at the expense of other stories

    I suppose these might fit in the categories above, but I’m not sure.

    In the public archives world I like one of my old mentor’s categories:

    * Archives are the gun at the head of government.

  8. Great additions, everyone! One aspect that I’m not sure that we’ve explored is how materials can be of us to the parent institution, which is I think what the original list was getting at. We’re all very focused on the ways our users/researchers use our materials (and rightly so), but what about the ways we prove valuable to the larger organization that a special collections might be part of? What about you corporate or college/university archivists? How do you explain your value to your bosses? The original list had a fair number of items about the value of digitization too, which I always think is just a means of extending all the values we’ve talked about here. Any other kinds of value that digitization adds?

    I suppose we could add the archives and special collections can generate revenue by collecting fees for reproductions of their collections. Any other “bottom line” values?

  9. Archives make the lives of administrators easier by taking on the burden of maintaining records with enduring administrative or legal/evidentiary value. They don’t have to keep up with them or worry about finding them years later. (idea stolen from Margaret Cross Norton)

    Archives provide a sense of continuity. The head honcho might leave, but his paper trail remains to help (or haunt) the next person in line.

  10. Special Collections houses the strange, the unusual, the exceedingly interesting, the dirty, and the expensive. All of these things can be trotted out to entice donors to contribute to the mission of the library.

  11. I’m inclined since diving into my current research and work on functional classification and description of records to say that somehow archives and special collections provide a glimpse into the a) reasons for creation of the records, b) actual use of the records, c) who used the records, and d) what other records were used alongside or in opposition to these records.

    That may be too technical and not very practical to the list we are generating, however.

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