Archive basics

The term "archive"

In every-day language, the word "archive" tends to be overused – almost every place storing and giving access to something old which is still valuable or useful is referred to as an "archive". However, "archive" is not derived from the Greek word archaios (old) but from arché, which means "government", "authority" or "office".

What is an archive?

Archives in the strict sense of the word are very complex institutions. Access to the records kept in archives is usually subject to more stringent requirements than work with publications in a library. Unlike library stocks, records in archives are absolutely unique.

Today, archival preservation and management concerns the entirety of records in writing, images and sound produced by governmental and non-governmental offices, as well as other institutions, associations, business operations or individuals to the extent that it is defined as having "archival quality" due to its legal or administrative, historical, scientific and technological or artistic value as a source.
Eckhart G. Franz

Such records are not collected in a targeted way or bought by archives, they are actually quasi-automatically transferred by the institution running the archives and the producers of current records – one or several agencies, offices and institutions which have registries, or physical persons. For archives, collecting is only a supporting and limited activity.

Scope of responsibility

In most countries laws on archives govern the obligation of agencies to transfer records today. In terms of local and subject-matter responsibility, the scope of competences of archives usually coincides with the scope of competences of the agencies which the archives obtain current records from. It is not quite as easy to define the scope of responsibilities for early modern times. Often enough, basic knowledge in administrative history is required to clarify related matters.

Since private records from estates, as well as archives of noble families and other family archives are not subject to the mandatory transfer of their holdings to state-run archives, it is often a matter of coincidence rather than logical aspects where these will eventually be preserved.

Archives as "memory attics"

Archives are primarily the "memory" of the administration which runs and supplies them, so they are in charge of safeguarding legislation. As a "store of raw materials for historical research", which they turned into in the second half of the 19th century, they may today rightly claim that they have become a "memory attic" in a much broader sense of the word.

Preliminary knowledge

The traces of past administrative work in archives are different from literary or historiographic products as they are "accidental sources". If we want them to speak to us, we will need basic knowledge in history and auxiliary sciences and we have to be familiar with the fundamental terminology of archival science.

Complex order structures

The way to finding the material you are looking for may at times be a rocky road, not only because of problems with the languages and scripts of older handwritten texts, but also due to the very special order structures of archives and their holdings. Unlike libraries and mere "collections", archives, with few exceptions, do not base their structure on artificial order principles such as subjects, topics or current acquisition numbers (numerus currens).

The "principle of provenance"

In the international archives community, the "principle of provenance" (principle of origin) started to prevail at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries at the latest. According to this principle, the original order of registries transferred by an agency, office etc. is respected as it developed to the extent that this is practicable ("principle of respect for the original order").

Ideally, the current records transferred by one agency then form (unmixed) "holdings" in their own right within the archive.
For this reason, there is no such thing as a "general card index" of all persons, objects and places stated in the archival records stored.

This is why the documentary work of archives has its limits. Contrary to what might people might hope, they do not provide collections of material on certain persons or topics at the push of a button.

Almost invariably, the research approach has to focus on the agency producing the records. Thus, the first question to ask is: "Which agency or authority had local and subject-matter jurisdiction, i.e. which agency was in charge of the administrative field the research project relates to?"

The "principle of provenance" comes to bear at many levels: not only the internal structure of the holdings but also the entire archive structure (plan of record groups).

The drawbacks of the "principle of pertinence"

Even though the "principle of provenance" is in practice often considered to be less user-friendly, there are significant reasons that speak in favour of it.

The older "principle of pertinence", according to which archives in former times used to organise official records according to their subject content without respect to provenance, only looks practical at first sight and more often than not, it cannot be applied consistently. In any event, records are taken out of their context of development thus robbing scholars of important potential to gain insights.

"Collections" in archives

The so-called "collections" within archives, which contain certain records or collectibles, continue to be arranged according to subject content or artificial criteria.

There has always been a preference for taking special archival records or enclosures from files (charters, maps, pictures, photographs) out of the registry context (separate archival records) not least because they required special treatment for reasons of conservation, and place them in groups of "selected records" or collections.

Moreover, there are "genuine" collections which were put together for reasons of documentation and consist of certain types of collectibles (collections of manuscripts, negative moulds for seals, signets, posters, pamphlets or newspaper clippings, documentations from contemporary history etc).

Each item must be registered to ensure that selected records or artificially formed collections remain useable. Thus, it is usually very convenient to use these parts of an archive.

Drawbacks for work in an environment "respecting grown structures"

Official records which were brought to the archives in large quantities from the late 19th century onwards could not be fully described in many cases. For scientific reasons (principle of provenance) as well as out of practical considerations, the "pre-archival order" had to be preserved.

Frequently, access to such official records continues to require work with the "tools" the original agency introduced (indices, logs, card indices). Archival description often hardly goes beyond the "packaging unit" (box or bundle).

Basic terminology of archival sciences (glossary)

  • Documents: Those segments of records from registries which have "archival quality" and are therefore kept permanently in archives. Individual components may be referred to as "records and other units".
  • Records and other units: Less specific umbrella term denoting (physical) units of documents.
  • Categories of records: In the German-speaking countries, distinctions are usually made between charters, files and registers.
  • Archival: Relating to documents and records, archives as institutions and archivists.
  • Archival unit: Smallest unit of documents which can be ordered at different levels of the record groups (box, file, piece).
  • Archival processing: The proper storage and utilisation of documents by appraisal, description, preservation and making such documents available for access.
  • Types of archives: In Austria, these are federal archives, provincial archives, municipal archives, parliamentary archives, church archives, business archives, party archives, family archives, university archives, media archives etc.
  • Archival quality: A document which has archival quality should be kept in the archive permanently because it is of legal, historical, artistic or other value and related significance. Archival quality is an important criterion in appraisal.
  • Holdings: A complex of documents at the highest level of the plan of record groups, ideally reflecting the structure and work of the body which formed the archive. In practice, it may also have been shaped artificially or consist of collectible items.
  • Appraisal: Decision which part of the documents offered for transfer by a registry has archival quality and should thus be kept permanently, and which has not and should therefore be discarded.
  • Entry: Smallest coherent and self-contained logical unit of text, primarily in registers.
  • Outside provenance: Documents from registries which would normally not transfer any material to the respective archive (e.g. family archives or "private" legacies of written material in a state archive).
  • Provenance: The origin, or rather the community of origin of (administrative) records; in the figurative sense, archival science also uses this term to denote the written "legacy" of an agency, institution etc. in its totality.
  • Registry (records management): Originally, an auxiliary unit in an administrative office which is responsible for the creation, control and maintenance of current records and makes these available if needed. The term may also be used for holdings of written records which keep their original structure after transfer.
  • Author of records (provenance): Agencies, administrative offices, other institutions or physical persons which produce and accumulate records in their administrative activities or conduct of business.
  • Records (official records): The totality of written documents, images and sound records of an author of records.
  • Registry principle: Principle derived from the principle of provenance whereby the (useful) order in a registry is maintained or restored upon archival processing.
  • Collection: Artificial compilation of written records, images and sound records without regard to their provenance (selected records) or the mere accumulation of collectibles.
  • Written records: The totality of records created, accumulated or maintained by an author of records in writing, including electronic records.
  • Item: The smallest physically indivisible archival unit of written records.
  • Access date: The date at which records become available for consultation by the general public, set forth in archives legislation.
  • Plan of record groups: Structure of an archive broken down according to groups of holdings, holdings, sub-holdings, series etc.

Introductory literature

The following book is a very useful introduction for the interested layperson: Burkhardt, Martin: Arbeiten im Archiv. Paderborn etc. 2006. Further interesting reading: Brenner-Wilczek, Sabine/Cepl-Kaufmann, Gertrude/Plassmann, Max: Einführung in die moderne Archivarbeit. Darmstadt 2006.