King's College home » Introduction to archives

Rupert Brooke's signature

1. What are archives?

Definition of ‘archive’

The word ‘archive’ is hard to define, as it is used in various ways, depending on context. It can mean:

  1. A collection of items which form evidence of the activities of a person or institution.
  2. A building where historical records are kept – also called ‘archive centres’, ‘record offices’ or ‘repositories’.
  3. Any papers that are old or used infrequently.
  4. The act of adding records to an archive.

Throughout this website, we shall consider the word ‘archive’ to mean:

A collection of documents created or gathered by one person or institution and selected for long-term preservation as evidence of their activities.

The format of these documents does not matter; they can be medieval parchment documents, maps, photographs or even digital files. They can be centuries old or just weeks old.

Archival documents are primary sources, having been created at the time of the events they describe by participants or witnesses of those events. They are usually unique.

Individual archival documents are often referred to as ‘records’ because they record an event. They can also be called ‘manuscripts’, although this relates to the fact that they were created by hand rather than being published.

We’d advise against using the word ‘archive’ in the senses of c) and d) above, as these can be ambiguous and don’t reflect the true nature of archives as documents that are felt to be historically significant, now or in the future.

Remember that the kind of archives we are concerned with have the following qualities:

  • They are primary sources
  • They have been selected as evidence of historically significant events
  • They are being looked after in the hope they will last for hundreds of years.

Back to the top |