Archival Concepts


When working with an institutional archive or starting an archival project, it helps to understand what it is that archives do and what you need to consider before getting started.

What do archives and libraries do?

Archives and libraries traditionally have four major functions:

Collect – Deciding which historical records are important to keep

Donating Your Materials to an Archive

Describe – Determining the best way to help researchers and users of archives retrieve historical materials

Why is Describing Materials Important for Community Archives?

Preserve – Maintaining the integrity of information over time so that it is not damaged or lost 

Types of Digital Storage

Share – Connecting audiences to the material

How to Work with Archival Materials

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and i keep on remembering


– Lucille Clifton, why some people be mad at me sometimes

Related Resources

Copyright and Legal Issues in Archives

Copyright and Community-Driven Archives

Related Resources

  1. Why Archives Matter
  2. What is a Charrette?
  3. What is a Community?
  4. What is a Community Archive?

How do archives work with different kinds of historical records? 

Historical materials come in different formats. What they are made of determines how they should be handled. Paper, audio tapes, photographs, digital images: all of these are types of archival formats, and they all require different kinds of care. All formats require appropriate storage, controlled temperature, and constant vigilance. A decision to keep material in an archive is a long-term investment in its safety and accessibility. 

Papers, Photographs, Video tapes, Audio tapes, Artifacts

All Hands on Deck at Hobson City’s Museum: Interview with Pauline Cunningham

Born-Digital/Digitized Content

Digital Archives: Management, Access, Preservation

Who decides when or how content is used once it is in an archive?

Donors are encouraged to share their access and use preferences when they give materials to an archive. The gift agreement stipulates who owns the copyright, how to secure permission to use the item, and if there are any restrictions to use. Most institutions maintain archives for the general public to use. If creators want to be compensated for the use of their collections, a public archive may not be the best fit. Archives do their best to interpret copyright laws and implement access or use restrictions to honor the wishes of their donors, but the outcome is not always perfect. 

Managing Collective Memory is Subjective 

Most of the concepts listed above could be understood differently from different points of view. Our decisions about what is important are sure to be different from our grandmothers’, for example. Not all communities believe that all information is for everybody and that it must last forever. Community archives offer an opportunity to challenge traditional archival assumptions and practices. Community-driven archives offer an avenue for reflexivity and engagement for institutional libraries and archives. 

 Learn about how your artifacts and stories have the power to enrich your community.