The role of “the professional discipline” in archives and digital archives

Why this discussion matters: part one

Everyone knows words can be slippery things and language evolves. Words mean different things in different contexts and people adopt and adapt words to suit their own needs.  So in some ways, my ongoing effort to discuss the meaning of the word “archive(s)” seems rather like a fool’s errand. But then I see news stories like this one about the failed BBC project that cost the British public 98.4 million pounds:

 It added that confusion about the technology and problems with getting the system to work had also been to blame, including “confusion within the BBC about the use of key terms such as ‘archive database’ and ‘digital archive’.”

Last month in Toronto, I gave a talk in which I debated with myself “Everything is an Archive Now: Good Thing or Bad Thing for Archives?” My conclusion was, naturally, that it’s both. One aspect of the downside is that groups who have to work together—like archivists, scholars, and information technology professionals—often mean different things by the same word and may not know that they are talking past each other (often assuming that their meaning is the commonly understood one). I also talked about this a bit in my remarks at the AHA about the problems with historians and archivists not necessarily sharing the same vocabulary when it comes to “digital archives.” Trevor Owens will be posting an excellent piece on The Signal blog about the many meanings for different professionals and I think it will go a long way to starting a discussion about how these meanings relate to each other (UPDATE: Trevor’s post is now up.)

But I want to dig a little deeper into the “archival” meaning of “archives” and how that relates to the various ways in which we see “digital archives” used. In a follow-up post I’ll discuss some other reasons this discussion is one that I keep returning to.

What is an archive or an archives?

In the definition of “archives” in A Glossary of Archives & Records Terminology (2005), Richard Pearce-Moses noted that the word (either “archive” as a noun or “archives”) can refer to:

  • a body of materials that is being preserved
  • an organization or part of an organization
  • a physical place

It is this first sense in which I think we see the term being used in broad sense in the media and in everyday usage. Any collection of stuff that people are keeping can be an archive or an archives. Any place where such stuff is being kept may be referred to as an archives. The organization or group who brought it together and is preserving it may also be called an archives. That all seems reasonable in a broad, common sense way.

And so this extends logically to the usages of “digital archives,” which we see used to mean:

  • a body of digital materials that is being preserved
  • an organization preserving that digital material
  • the place in which the digital material is stored

One interesting twist in the broad usage of “digital archives” is that the emphasis is often not that the digital materials are being preserved, but that they have been gathered together and are being made accessible on the web. Thus, those adopting the term may be thinking more of their “digital archives” as a virtual place in which materials can be accessed or as the organization (even if only an organization of one person) responsible for gathering the materials and making them accessible. But often in “digital archives” it is digital copies of non-digital materials that are being assembled and made available in the “archives” while the original non-digital copies are being preserved (and made accessible) in a variety of physical libraries and archives and by a variety of archival organizations.

Another aspect of this usage may also be that people perceive a key aspect of archives to be selection (or curation) and therefore a group of materials that has been deliberately selected and brought together qualifies as an “archives.” In this sense, it’s really the function of the archives as an organization that selects what materials to add to its holdings that’s being invoked, although perhaps unconsciously by those creating these “digital archives.” (I included some discussion of this in my article “Archives in Context and as Context” in the Journal of Digital Humanities if you’re interested.) And, of course, there are also “digital archives” in which copies of born-digital materials are being preserved as well as being made accessible. As I noted in my AHA talk, the term is applied to a broad range of uses. And very possibly many of those using it have never actually given much thought to in what sense their collection, site or project is an archives. If the moniker seems to fit, why not use it?

But what this broad usage of the term means is that it is often difficult for a user to know whether or not a digital archives also adheres to one additional aspect of the Pearce-Moses’ definition:

  • “the professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations”

Archives and digital archives—collections, organizations, and places—that are administered in a manner that adheres to the professional discipline of archives are different than those that do not.   (For anyone who”s not familiar with the basic tenets of that professional discipline, I also gave an overview of them in the “Archives in Context and as Context article.) Note I did not say that they were better, but different.  It’s arguable whether the word “archives “ was ever commonly understood to be synonymous with a collection, organization, or place administered in adherence to the discipline of archives, and I’m sure evidence can be produced to show the word has always been used in a broader sense. However, I also feel sure that the broadening of the usage we have seen in the digital age has diminished whatever common understanding there was.

So that is the world we live in, as you all know. The world in which archives and digital archives are used to refer to virtually anything, and are sometimes used by people who believe their usage is consistent with professional practice in their field—and it may be—but that usage has nothing to do with adhering to the professional discipline of archives. This means, as I concluded in my remarks in Toronto—that archivists and all related professionals need to be very clear in our communications with each other about what we mean when we talk about “archives.” (And Trevor Owens’s post on The Signal will help facilitate that.) In my personal experience, the burden for initiating that communication falls primarily on archivists. More often than not it is the archivist who must query and probe to determine what a scholar or IT professional means by “archives,” usually in the course of a discussion about what requirements or functionalities an “archives” needs to have. Not every archives or digital archives needs to adhere to the “professional discipline” of archives, but it’s a discipline that has much to offer in this field and one which we as archivists should continue to promote actively and vocally.


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9 thoughts on “The role of “the professional discipline” in archives and digital archives”

  1. The Glossary is descriptive, not prescriptive. The definitions were based (to the best of my ability) on how the terms are used, rather than trying to establish a “correct” definition. (I’ll confess to an ego, but it’s not so large that I would assert the privilege of distinguishing one “correct” definition over others.)

    As such, the three items you list are examples of how the term is used. Note, though, that the first sense is more complex. “Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.”

    I agree with your assertion that the media (I’d go further than that) think of archives as some collection of records. A quote from Peter Hirtle in the citations reinforces the idea. “ In the vernacular, the word archives has come to mean anything that is old or established. . . . ” (Archival Authenticity in a Digital Age. Authenticity in a Digital Environment. Council on Library and Information Resources, 2000, p. 8–23.)

    When teaching, I tell my students that an archives requires all three elements. Of course, there are the collections. But a bunch of old records in and of itself is not an archives. The physical space is more than a storage location; it represents physical control over the collection and the security to protect the records. Last, and possibly the most important, is the organization that is responsible for the archives as a program. Without a program, how can there be acquisition, access, and sustainability over time? Who is there to do the work?

    Selection (or curation) is merely one of the functions. For some, it is the most important activity, and therefore a characteristic central to the definition. Selection is only one of the core functions of archives. For others, access and use is the guiding star, while for others it is preservation of authentic, trustworthy memory into the future.

    You note that the Glossary also defines ‘archives’ in reference to the discipline. Looking under ‘archivist’, one finds a fuller definition that includes those other activities. “An individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control to protect the materials’ authenticity and context.”

    You conclude, “Not every archives or digital archives needs to adhere to the “professional discipline” of archives, but it’s a discipline that has much to offer in this field and one which we as archivists should continue to promote actively and vocally.” I agree with the sentiment that archivists must advocate loudly and clearly for the profession, that professional archivists have much to offer.

    I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that not every archives or digital archives needs to adhere to the specialized knowledge, ethics, and other qualities that distinguishes “archives” as a profession, rather than merely a job. Without that professional discipline, those collections of records are merely that – a collection of records. Worse, they are often managed such that context and the meaning it adds to the records is lost.

  2. Thought provoking post. I hope Part 2 addresses “archiving” as a verb. Lots of confusion over what that means!

  3. Richard,

    Thanks for those clarifications and your contribution to the discussion. To the point in your last paragraph, what I’m doing in this post and hopefully in everything I’ve written lately about the usage of the word “archives” is to try to be inclusive and respectful to people and disciplines who want to use the word to refer to what you and I would probably call collections. Does it bother me to see the word used to apply in this way? Of course it does. Just as (to Sammie’s point, above) I really do not care for the use of “archive” as a verb. For me, it’s like scraping nails down a chalkboard. But, people do use it, and people do call their digital collections (as well as many other kinds of collections) “archives,” and since neither I nor the entire weight of the archival profession (if indeed it could ever be mustered behind one goal) could ever stop that. I’m trying to take a pragmatic approach to inform and engage related professionals about what “archives” are. Engaging in discussion about the meaning of the word is the sugary candy coating that hopefully will get more people to swallow the knowledge about what archives are in our sense. Because I sincerely believe that knowledge of what archives are is on the wane among scholars and academics, and that’s a problem for our profession.

    Keep your eyes peeled for the follow up about why this discussion matters. I think you’ll be on board with it.



  4. Hey Sammie,

    Oh, my, yes–lots of differing uses there! Actually, I think Trevor’s post might get into that issue as well, since he’ll be talking about the way computer scientists use the word (including, probably, as a verb).


  5. Thank you for this, Kate. I look forward to Part 2.

    Can you provide a direct link to the Trevor Owens piece? I can’t seem to find the one you are referring to on the blog.

    I am very interested in how the usage of the term has evolved over time. I had the thought that it would be fascinating to use the text analysis tools employed in Digital Humanities work to chart the usage of the words ‘archive/s/ing/ed’ over time. Sadly, I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to use any of those tools (or even if the tool I am imagining actually exists). Perhaps, in my free time (ha!), I’ll see if I can begin to figure it out.

    Looking at the examples of earliest usage provided by the OED, the noun-form is traced back to the early 1600s (with, interestingly, the earliest quotation being the use of the word in the figurative sense, in a 1603 translation of Plutarch; the earliest reference to “archives” as historical record doesn’t appear until 35 yrs after that and the use of ‘archives’ referring to a place doesn’t occur until 1645). The use of archive as a verb doesn’t appear until the mid-20th century and really takes off in the late-1970s/early 1980s, particularly in computer science.

  6. I suspect that the use of ‘archive’ as a verb comes from IT. In particular, moving files from (expensive, in those days) disks to tape for offline storage. The command, in Unix, is tar (short for tape archives). XKCD’s take on the command is spot on.

    I’ve always been amused by colleagues who insist that archives always has an ‘s’ at the end. I suggest they tell that to Hilary Jenkison, who book is titled “Manual of Archive Adminsitration.”

  7. I respect and embrace the importance of Richard and other educators to teach their students about the real definition of archive. What better time to correct imprecise definitions than when cultivating the next generation of archivists.

    But I’ve largely found my organization’s largely erroneous or incomplete use of “archive” to be a net benefit–more often than not, what has happened is that they say, “We know we need to archive this data* properly, so maybe we should ask this department that has the word archive in it how to do that.” If we set aside anomalous examples of dysfunctional work cultures that can’t be corrected, I argue that, by and large, if archivists are getting left out of the “archiving” conversations at their institutions, it’s because they haven’t done a good job communicating what expertise they can lend to such discussion. And if they have no such expertise to lend, well, no amount of wordsmithing is going to keep them from being marginalized.

    *another problematic usage, but who’s keeping score if they’re calling me?

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