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:

  • A collection of items which form evidence of the activities of a person or institution.

  • A building where historical records are kept – also called ‘archive centres’, ‘record offices’ or ‘repositories’.

  • Any papers that are old or used infrequently.

  • 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.

Did You Know?
The word ‘archive’ is derived from the Greek word ‘archeia’, meaning ‘public records’.



Libraries and Archives

Here you'll see terms like ‘provenance’ for the first time. Don’t worry, they will be explained in later sections.

Libraries ..... Archives

Primary or Secondary sources?

Mainly secondary. Most of the material in libraries is published.  
Mainly primary. Most archival documents were written or typed by the creator, rather than printed by a publisher, which is why they are often referred to as manuscripts. Published material is only kept if it was used or collected by the person or institution in the course of their work.

Is it possible to browse the holdings?

Yes. Library materials are usually on open access. You can search the catalogue or simply browse the relevant shelves.
  No. Archives are stored securely in a separate room, called a strong room, so you have to request them. To identify the items you’d like to see, you have to browse the catalogue.


Subject, author, title...  
Provenance and original order (discussed in section 2).


Individual items. Items can be found by using keyword searches etc. A book has meaning and usefulness independently of other books.  
Hierarchical description. Archival catalogues reflect the way the documents were created, so the catalogue has different levels of description (discussed in section 4). Documents require contextual information which can often be found in the structure of the catalogue. Keyword searches are often very helpful but it is important to consider how every item relates to the rest of the collection.

Is it possible to borrow items?

Yes, in most cases. Most libraries will have one or two sections which are ‘reference only’ but most of their holdings will be available for members to borrow.
  No. Normally, you can see original archival documents only in a designated room, called a searchroom or reading room, once you have registered as a reader (discussed in section 5).

Are there any restrictions to access?

Not usually. Libraries exist to provide access to information.  
Sometimes. A document may be ‘restricted/closed’ if it is fragile or for certain legal reasons, such as Data Protection (section 6). They are kept because of their evidential value and because they will probably eventually be put on open/unrestricted access.

Where do the items come from?

Most of the books in libraries will have been bought or donated. Researchers generally only want information about how a book was acquired if it is very rare.  
Documents are often transferred from another department of the same institution. They can be donated (given permanently) or deposited (given on a long-term loan) by individuals or outside institutions. They are occasionally bought at auction or from a bookseller but this is rare. The provenance (history of ownership) of documents is very important, for reasons we shall discuss in the next section.

Did You Know?
The Berg Collection is held at the New York Public Library and contains some 35,000 printed volumes, pamphlets, and broadsides, and 2,000 linear feet of literary archives and manuscripts, representing the work of more than 400 authors.



Almost Archives

There are certain library departments which do not fit the usual distinctions between libraries and archives.

Rare books

Libraries will often keep rare books in strong rooms and provide access to them only in reading rooms, although rare books are not normally considered archival. These books often include first editions, books which were once collected by famous people or medieval texts written by hand, with wonderful ‘illuminations’ (pictures, often found at the start of a section or in a margin).

Special collections

Special collections departments often keep rare books and personal papers (the archives of famous or locally important people). Special collections departments within university libraries often keep thesis written by the alumni of that university. Access to materials kept in special collections is often similar to that provided in archives, and they can be managed by librarians as well as archivists.

Local studies

Many libraries have a section relating to the history and geography of their local region. These combine published and unpublished materials. They may contain archival material but more commonly the items they hold are surrogates (copies of documents). Surrogates are sometimes used to provide access to the information on fragile or frequently-used archival documents, while ensuring the original documents are not damaged through excessive handling.

Did You Know?
The British Library contains various departments, including a Manuscripts department, where archival documents include love-letters between the poet Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner.



Types of Archival Repository

There are several types of archival repository but most repositories fall into the following categories:

  • National archives

  • County archives

  • Community archives

  • University/College archives

  • School archives

  • Church archives

  • Business archives

  • Charity archives

  • Gallery archives

  • Museum archives

  • Police archives

  • Theatre archives

Did You Know?
Although people and organisations have preserved records for centuries, the ways they have done this have changed. Bedfordshire Record Office opened in 1913 and was the first county record office.



Who Uses Archives?

It was once thought that archives were just for academics. This is no longer the case, if it ever was. People are using archives for all sorts of research now.

  • Students and academics still use archives when writing their dissertations, books or journal articles. It is not only history students - other subjects researched using archives include literature, art and economics, to name a few.

  • Television programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ have greatly increased the popularity of archives for family history research. It has been argued that this increases people’s sense of identity and well-being.

  • Local history researchers carry out research to gain a better understanding of the area in which they live.

  • Artists and designers have used art and design archives to inspire their work.

  • Enthusiasts visit archives to find out more about their hobbies. For example people who are interested in travel or engineering might use shipbuilding, Post Office or railway collections.

  • Businesses use archives for marketing purposes. Major business archives include the following, whose websites can be seen by following the links at the end of this sub-section:

    • Marks and Spencer

    • John Lewis

    • Post Office

  • Solicitors, town planners, developers and architects use archives when considering how to manage the built environment, restore buildings or plan new ones.

  • Journalists often use archives to research their stories or obtain copies of archival documents to illustrate their stories or obituaries.

  • Records relating to politics are usually ‘closed’ (unavailable to researchers) for a certain amount of time but once they are made available to the public, they can often influence our views of previous governments. One example of this is the Hillsborough inquiry.

  • Archives can even be used as evidence in hearings on human rights violations, such as the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa).

  • Some people destroy archives, knowing their value as evidence or for social justice.

These are just a few groups of archive-users. The list could go on.

Did You Know?
In 2013, 306 people visited the King’s College Archive Centre as readers, of whom 211 were visiting for the first time. Many of these readers spent several days in the reading room.

Why Are Archives Important?

Archives are important because they provide evidence of activities and tell us more about individuals and institutions. They tell stories. They also increase our sense of identity and understanding of cultures. They can even ensure justice.

Records weren’t usually created for the purpose of historical research so they often provide a less biased account of events than secondary sources.

To hear why certain prominent historians and politicians consider archives to be of great importance, watch this video, which was created for The National Archives’ ‘ARCHI’VE EXPLORED’ campaign.

Did You Know?
The National Archives answered 36,000 written enquiries and 38,000 telephone enquiries in the year 2013-14.



What would the world look like without archives?

www.exploreyourarchive.org are amazing because without them we wouldn't know if this summer is the 'hottest on record', we wouldn't have such historically rich novels and films, we wouldn't know about the lives of our significant artists, and we wouldn't be able to revisit controversial and compelling legal cases from years gone by. Explore Your Archive. There is so much to discover.


  • Tick the boxes to indicate if the following statements are true or false:

  • 1. Archives are primary sources.

  • 2. Archives are easy to browse.

  • 3. Archives are kept as evidence of historically significant events.

  • 4. Archival documents are always old.

  • 5. In most cases, you have to visit special rooms called ‘reading rooms’ or ‘searchrooms’ to see archival documents.

  • 6. Many businesses have archives.

  • Total question answered: 0/6
    Overall score: 0/6

    This resource is designed to be challenging so if you didn’t get full marks, don’t be disheartened.

    Just refresh the page, go back over anything you didn’t get right, try again and if you still don’t understand, please feel free to contact archivist@kings.cam.ac.uk.

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