Archival science

Archival science, or archival studies, is the study and theory of building and curating archives,[1] which are collections of recordings and data storage devices.

To build and curate an archive, one must acquire and evaluate recorded materials, and be able to access them later. To this end, archival science seeks to improve methods for appraising, storing, preserving, and cataloging recorded materials.[2]

An archival record preserves data that is not intended to change. In order to be of value to society, archives must be trustworthy. Therefore, an archivist has a responsibility to authenticate archival materials, such as historical documents, and to ensure their reliability, integrity, and usability. Archival records must be what they claim to be; accurately represent the activity they were created for; present a coherent picture through an array of content; and be in usable condition in an accessible location.[3]

An archive curator is called an archivist; the curation of an archive is called archive administration.



The earliest archival manuals: Jacob von Rammingen, Von der Registratur (1571), Baldassare Bonifacio, De Archivis (1632).

Archival science emerged from diplomatics, the critical analysis of documents.[1][4]

In 1540, Jacob von Rammingen (1510-1582) wrote the manuscript of the earliest known archival manual. He was an expert on registries (Registraturen), the German word for what later became known as archives.[5]

Rammingen elaborated a registry for the Augsburg city council. However, since he could not attend the council meeting, he described the structure and management of the archives in writing. Although this is not the first work about archival science (Rammingen himself refers to earlier literature about record-keeping), earlier manuals were usually not published. Archival science had no formal beginning. Jacob von Rammingen's manual was printed in Heidelberg in 1571.[5]

Traditionally, archival science has involved the study of methods for preserving items in climate-controlled storage facilities. It is also the study of cataloguing and accession, of retrieval and safe handling. The advent of digital documents along with the development of electronic databases has caused the field to re-evaluate its means and ends.[6] While generally associated with museums and libraries, the field also can pertain to individuals who maintain private collections or business archives. Archival Science is taught in colleges and universities, usually under the umbrella of Information Science or paired with a History program.

A list of foundational thinkers in archival studies could include: American archivist Theodore Schellenberg and British archivist Sir Hilary Jenkinson. Some important archival thinkers of the past century include: Canadian archivist and scholar Terry Cook, South African archivist Verne Harris, Australian archival scholar Sue McKemmish, UCLA faculty and archival scholar Anne Gilliland, University of Michigan faculty and archival scholar Margaret Hedstrom, American archival scholar and University of Pittsburgh faculty member Richard Cox, Italian archival scholar and faculty at University of British Columbia Luciana Duranti, and American museum and archival scholar David Bearman.


There is no universal set of laws or standards that governs the form or mission of archival institutions.[7] The forms, functions, and mandates of archival programs and institutions tend to differ based on geographical location and language, the nature of the society in which they exist and the objectives of those in control of the archives.[7] Instead, the current standards that have been provided and are most widely followed, such as the ICA standard, ISO standard, and DIRKS standard, act as working guidelines for archives to follow and adapt in ways that would best suit their respective needs.

Following the introduction of computer technology in archival repositories, beginning in the 1970s, archivists increasingly recognized the need to develop common standards for descriptive practice, in order to facilitate the dissemination of archival descriptive information.[8] The standard developed by archivists in Canada, Rules for Archival Description, also known as RAD, was first published in 1990. As a standard, RAD aims to provide archivists with a consistent and common foundation for the description of archival material within a fonds, based on traditional archival principles.[9] A comparable standard used in the United States is Describing Archives: A Content Standard, also known as DACS.[10] These standards are in place to provide archivists with the tools for describing and making accessible archival material to the public.[11]

Metadata comprises contextual data pertaining to a record or aggregate of records. In order to compile metadata consistently, so as to enhance the discoverability of archival materials for users, as well as support the care and preservation of the materials by the archival institution, archivists look to standards appropriate to various kinds of metadata for different purposes, including administration, description, preservation, and digital storage and retrieval. For example, common standards used by archivists for structuring descriptive metadata, which conveys information such as the form, extent, and content of archival materials, include Machine-Readable Cataloguing (MARC format), Encoded Archival Description (EAD), and Dublin core.[12]

Provenance in archival science

Provenance in archival science refers to the "origin or source of something; information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection."[13] As a fundamental principle of archives, provenance refers to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. In practice, provenance dictates that records of different origins should be kept separate to preserve their context.[13] As a methodology, provenance becomes a means of describing records at the series level.

The principle of provenance

Describing records at the series level to ensure that records of different origins are kept separate, provided an alternative to item-level manuscript cataloguing.[14] The practice of provenance has two major concepts: "respect des fonds," and "original order." "Respect des fonds" rose from the conviction that records entering an archive have an essential connection to the person or office that generated and used them; archivists consider all the records originating with a particular administrative unit (whether former, or still existing) to be a separate archival grouping, or "fonds", and seek to preserve and describe the records accordingly, with close attention to evidence of how they were organized and maintained at the time they were created.[15]:167-168 "Original order," refers to keeping records "as nearly as possible in the same order of classification as obtained in the offices of origin," gives additional credibility to preserved records and to their originating "fonds."[14] Records must be kept in the same order they were placed in the course of the official activity of the agency concerned; records are not to be artificially reorganized. Records kept in their original order are more likely to reveal the nature of the organizations which created them, and more importantly, of the order of activities out of which they emerged.[16]

Not infrequently, practical considerations of storage mean that it is impossible to maintain the original order of records physically. In such cases, however, the original order should still be respected intellectually in the structure and arrangement of finding aids.

Practices before the emergence of provenance

Following the French Revolution, a newfound appreciation for historical records emerged in French society. Speaking to the past, records began to "acquir[e] the dignity of national monuments"[17] and their care was entrusted to scholars who were trained in libraries.[16] With an emphasis on historical research, it seemed obvious at the time that records should be arranged and catalogued in a manner that would "facilitate every kind of scholarly use."[17][16] To support research, artificial systematic collections, often arranged by topic, were established and records were catalogued into these schemes.[15] With archival documents approached from a librarianship perspective, records were organized according to classification schemes and their original context of creation were frequently lost or obscured.[16] This form of archival arrangement has come to be known as the "historical manuscripts tradition."

Emergence of provenance

The principle of "respect des fonds" and of "original order" was adopted in Belgium and France about 1840 and spread throughout Europe during the following decades.[15] Following the rise of state-run archives in France and Prussia, the rising volume of modern records entering the archive made the adherence to the manuscript tradition impossible; there were not enough resources to organize and classify each record. Provenance received its most pointed expression in the "Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives," a Dutch text published in 1898 and written by three Dutch archivists, Samuel Muller, Johan Feith, and Robert Fruin. This text provided the first description of the principle of provenance and argued that "original order" is an essential trait of archival arrangement and description.[18]

Complementing the work of the Dutch archivists and supporting the concept of provenance were the historians of the era. Though subject-based classification aided research, historians began to concern themselves with objectivity in their source material. For its advocates, provenance provided an objective alternative to the generally subjective classification schemes borrowed from librarianship. Historians increasingly felt that records should be maintained in their original order to better reflect the activity out of which they emerged.


Although original order is a generally accepted principle, there has been some debate surrounding this theory in regards to personal archives.[15] It has been argued that original order is not always ideal for personal archives as they are far more complex than organizational archives.[16] However, others prefer to remain loyal to the principle of original order and maintain that personal records are created and maintained for much the same reason as organizational archives and should therefore follow the same principles.[16]

Preservation in archival science

Image of archival boxes.
Archival boxes at the NASA archives.

Preservation, as defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), is the act of protecting materials from physical deterioration or loss of information, ideally in a noninvasive way.[19] The goal of preservation is to maintain as much originality as possible while maintaining all the information which the material has to offer. Both scientific principles and professional practices are applied to this technique to obtain maximum effectiveness. In an archival sense, preservation refers to the care of all the aggregates within a collection. Conservation can be included in this practice and often these two definitions overlap.[11]

The beginnings of preservation

Preservation emerged with the establishment of the first central archives. In 1789, during the French Revolution, the Archives Nationales was established and later, in 1794, transformed into a central archives.[15] This was the first independent national archives and their goal was to preserve and store documents and records as they were. This trend gained popularity and soon other countries began establishing national archives for the same reasons, to maintain and preserve their records as they were created and received.[11]

Cultural and scientific change also helped to bring about the idea and practice of preservation. In the late eighteenth century, many museums, national libraries, and national archives were established in Europe; therefore ensuring the preservation of their cultural heritage.[11]

Archival preservation

Preservation, like provenance, is concerned with the proper representation of archival materials. Archivists are primarily concerned with maintaining the record, along with the context in which it was produced, and making this information accessible to the user.[11]

Tout ensemble is a definition relating to preservation. This definition encompasses the idea of context and the importance of maintaining context. When a record is removed from its fellow records, it loses its meaning. In order to preserve a record it must be preserved in its original entirety or else it may lose its significance. This definition relates to the principle of provenance and respect des fonds as it similarly emphasizes the idea of the original record.[11]

Metadata is key for the preservation of context within archival science. Metadata, as defined by the SAA, is “data about data.”[12] This data can help archivists locate a specific record, or a variety of records within a certain category. By assigning appropriate metadata to records or record aggregates, the archivist successfully preserves the entirety of the record and the context in which it was created. This allows for better accessibility and improves the authenticity of the record.[20]

Physical maintenance is another key feature of preservation. There are many strategies in place to preserve archives properly; such as rehousing items in acid-free containers, storing items in climate controlled areas, and copying deteriorating items. These preservation techniques are to be carried out with respect to provenance.[11]

Digital preservation

Main article: Digital preservation

Digital preservation involves the implementation of policies, strategies, and actions in order to ensure that digitized documents remain accurate and accessible over time. Due to emerging technologies, archives began to expand and require new forms of preservation. Archival collections spread to include new media such as microfilm, audiofiles, visualfiles, moving images, and digital documents. Many of these new types of media suffer from a shorter life expectancy than paper.[11] With the quick advancement of our technological society, old media is becoming obsolete. Therefore, migration from old formats to new formats is necessary for the preservation of these digital medias so they can remain accurate and accessible.[20]

Metadata is an important part of digital preservation as it preserves the context, usage, and migration of a digital record. Similarly to traditional preservation, metadata is required to preserve the context, authenticity, and accessibility of a record.[20]

Professional associations

Professional archivist associations seek to foster study and professional development:

Regional Professional Associations

Smaller professional regional associations also provide more local professional development, such as:

In 2002, the Society of American Archivists published guidelines for a graduate program in archival studies,[21] but as of 2007 these guidelines have not been adopted by many universities. Practitioners of archival science might come from such academic backgrounds as library science, information science, history, or museology.

See also


  1. 1 2 Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). "Archival Science". A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2012-12-07.
  2. "The Archival Paradigm—The Genesis and Rationales of Archival Principles and Practices". Council on Library and Information Resources. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
  3. "About records, archives and the profession". International Council on Archives. Retrieved 2011-11-03.
  4. Duranti, Luciana; Heather MacNeil (January 1996). "The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records: An Overview of the UBC-MAS Research Project". Archivaria. 1 (42): 46–67. Retrieved 2007-02-16.
  5. 1 2 Weidling, T. (2013). "Den äldsta arkivläran: Jacob von Rammingens båda läroböcker i registratur- och arkivskötsel från 1571, samt en monografi om arkiv från 1632 av Baldassare Bonifacio" [The oldest archival science: Jacob von Rammingen's two manuals of registry and archival management from 1571, and a monography on archives from 1632 by Baldassare Bonifacio]. Scandinavian Journal of History (in Swedish). 38 (2): 270–271. doi:10.1080/03468755.2013.776405.
  6. "Foreword". Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook. Society of American Archivists. Archived from the original on 5 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
  7. 1 2 Adrian Cunningham, "Archival Institutions," in Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, ed. Sue McKemmish et al. (Wagga Wagga, New South Wales: Charles Sturt University, Centre for Information Studies, 2005), 21-22.
  8. Roe, Kathleen D. (2005). Arranging & Describing Archives & Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists. p. 37.
  9. Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). "Rules for Archival Description". A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  10. Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). "Describing Archives: A Content Standard". A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Michèle V. Cloonan, "Preserving Records of Enduring Value," in Currents of Archival Thinking, ed. Terry Eastwood and Heather MacNeil (Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, 2010), 69-88.
  12. 1 2 Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). "Metadata." A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  13. 1 2 Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). "Provenance". A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  14. 1 2 Luke J. Gilliland-Swetland, “The Provenance of a Profession: The Permanence of the Public Archives and Historical Manuscripts Traditions in American Archival History,” American Archivist 54, no. 2 (1991): 160-174; here: p. 161.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 Ernst Posner, "Some Aspects of Archival Development Since the French Revolution," American Archivist 3, no. 3 (July 1940): 159-174.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Douglas, Jennifer (2010). "Origins: Evolving Ideas about the Principle of Provenance," in Currents of Archival Thinking, ed. Terry Eastwood and Heather MacNeil (Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited), p. 23-43.
  17. 1 2 Posner (1940), p. 166.
  18. Terry Cook, "What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift," Archivaria 43, no. 1997 (February 1, 1997): 17-62.
  19. Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). "Preservation". A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2016-01-01.
  20. 1 2 3 Kate Cumming, "Metadata Matters," in Managing Electronic Records, ed. Julie McLeod and Catherine Hare (London: Facet Publishing, 2005) 34-49.
  21. "Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies". Society of American Archivists. Archived from the original on 6 April 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-03.

External links

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