Archival materials: a practical definition

There is no final or ultimate definition of the term ‘archives’ that must be accepted without change and in preference to all others. --T.R. Schellenberg (1)

Archival materials are information objects that serve as evidence of past events. They act as a memory aid or as a proxy for those events by recording information about them which can be recalled at some point in the future. The archival materials are used to re-experience those events or to re-communicate information about them.

Note that the archival materials themselves are not memories but instead aid in the recall of past experiences or communications. As Angelika Menne-Haritz notes, “Archives do not store memory. But they offer the possibility to create memory. Their function is that of amnesia prevention.” (2) Also, archival materials can only act as a memory aid for a person that was present or participating in the past event, by providing information that allows them to remember it. If the person was not present, archival materials can act as a proxy for the event by communicating information which allows the person to experience specific details or characteristics of the event.

Proxy is the power or agency to act as a substitute or replacement for someone or something. (3) For example, a person may not have been present at U2's live performance of ‘Gloria' at the Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Colorado on June 5, 1983 or the 1988 European Championship Final between The Netherlands and The Soviet Union in Munich, Germany. However, they are able to access and use recordings (i.e. archival materials) as a proxy that allows them to experience those events, as if they were there. As explained further below, the fact that these recordings may have been copied, published and sold for wider distribution does not exclude them from the broad category of archival materials as defined here.Of course, the proxy is only able to communicate a limited set of details and characteristics about the event. It is not the event itself. By listening to an audio recording of ’Gloria’ I can hear the music that was played on that day in the Colorado ampitheatre but I cannot see the expression on the band members face or feel the sway of the crowd as it moves en masse to beat of the music.

In fact, even for someone present at that concert, listening to a recording at a later time will never replace the actual event. The archival materials can only act as a memory aid or as a proxy for the event. Perhaps one exception to this rule is what Diplomatics calls ‘dispositive documents’ where the moment of an action and the moment of its documentation are “simultaneous and indistinguishable other than conceptually (for example, a sale takes place when and only when a contract of sale is completed), to the point that, in positive law, dispositive documents are actually called ‘acts’.” (4) In this example the document and a very specific juridical act are one and the same. However, the actual event of drafting and signing the sale contract happened in a particular place, at a particular time. The participants in that event will have memories of the details and characteristics of that particular place and time which are far richer than the content, structure or context of the sale contract document can reveal.

Therefore, the term event is used broadly here to mean any type of activity or occurrence, including the signing of sale contract, performance of a song, or the playing of a soccer match. An event can range from a single transaction (e.g. the purchase of a magazine at a bookstore) to any number of inter-related acts (e.g. all the steps involved in ordering, paying, packaging and shipping magazines to a bookstore). It may include a grand and long event such as a war, an election or an opera performance. It can include structured events such as a purchase invoicing procedure, a driver’s license application or a school exam. It may also include unstructured, isolated acts such as a spontaneous dance move or the unsolicited expression of an abstract idea.

Although archival materials deal predominantly with human activity, they can also include information related to natural events, such as video footage of a volcano eruption or a biologist’s field notes detailing the behaviour of a group of animals. In the end, the primary purpose is still to communicate information about the event back to oneself or to other humans. John Newhagen notes that “at least one human has to be engaged in information processing for interactivity [i.e. an internal process of deriving meaning from information] to take place...Any number of other agents [e.g. archival materials] also can be part of the process and may speak from both temporal and physical distance.” (5)

Archival materials are the basis for organizational knowledge, legal evidence, historical research, as well as personal and collective memory. Archival materials can include a spreadsheet illustrating monthly sales, a contract that is introduced in a court proceeding, the correspondence of a famous author, family photograph albums, or an audio recording of someone’s first violin recital.

Other common terms in the English language that are used for archival materials include historical documents, archives, or records. Most academic and professional definitions of records and archives focus primarily on their relationship to business processes or transactions and their subsequent role as evidence of those events. See, for example, the following representative examples:

  1. “A record is recorded information produced or received in the initiation, conduct or completion of an institutional or individual activity and that comprises content, context and structure sufficient to provide evidence of the activity.” - ICA Committee on Electronic Records (6)
  2. “Record - information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organization or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business.” - ISO 15489-1 Records Management (7)
  3. “a document created or received by a physical or juridical person in the course of a practical activity.” - Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (8)
  4. “Archives are process-bound information, that is to say: information that is generated by and bound to work processes.” - Een Korte Introductie in de Archivistiek (9)

These definitions typically differentiate between those documents that are strongly bound to business processes and those that are merely considered to be drafts, supporting documents, or incidental information. However, a broader, more inclusive definition is needed to account for the wide variety of otherwise non-record materials that end up, quite regularly, in archival collections, whether for traditional record-keeping purposes or because archivists, donors or researchers have found the materials to be useful, interesting or otherwise worthy of preserving.

Archival materials are therefore defined broadly here as objects in any form that record information which is preserved for future access and use as a memory aid or proxy for a past event. Where this definition differs from more traditional ones is that the focus is not on the process or transaction that created the information object but rather on the fact that it is intentionally being preserved to be accessed and used at some point in the future. In short, this definition is access-based rather than evidence-based, reflecting Angelika Menne-Haritz’s declaration that “the use of archives is the only reason for their existence.” (10)For this reason, the more generic term 'materials' is used here instead of 'records' or 'archives', thereby intentionally avoiding some of the theoretical baggage that these latter terms carry.

Interestingly, the term ‘archival materials’ is used throughout the International Council on Archives’ International Standard Archival Description (General) to identify the object of archival description. However, it is not actually defined in the accompanying glossary while ‘document’ and ‘record’ are. 'Materials' can be defined as “1. the elements, constituents, or substances of which something is composed or can be made 2. matter that has qualities which give it individuality and by which it may be categorized, e.g. ”. (11)

In this case, it is the matter or elements of which archival information objects are composed. In turn, 'archival' is used in this definition as an adjective that simply implies storage and preservation for future access. As is understood, for example, in the concept of the ‘archival function’ which is defined by the International Council on Archives as “that group of related activities contributing to, and necessary for accomplishing the goals of, identifying, safeguarding and preserving archival records, and ensuring that such records are accessible and understandable.” (12)

The intentional preservation of the information object is an important part of this definition. It implies that the long-term value of the information object has been recognized and that steps, however minimal, have been taken to maintain and protect it. (13) This is typically done by collecting and grouping related information objects together into an archival collection that is stored for safe-keeping in a designated storage container and repository, regardless of whether that is a photo album on a bookshelf in the family study or acid-free boxes in a climate-controlled vault.

When something is preserved, intentional action is taken to protect and maintain it over the long-term. Note that ‘Long-term’ is an approximate concept and can be a relatively short period of time, particularly in the preservation of digital information objects. For example, when dealing with the concept of long-term for the purpose of digital preservation, the ISO Open Archival Information System (OAIS) defines it as “a period of time long enough for there to be concern about the impacts of changing technologies, including support for new media and data formats, and of a changing user community, on the information being held in a repository. This period extends into the indefinite future.” (14)

Most generations of information technologies have a maximum lifespan of five years, therefore, this length of time is typically used as a baseline in the field of digital preservation. Due to the complexity of preserving digital information, this has also led to the oft-quoted, cynical observation that “digital information lasts forever—or five years, whichever comes first.” (15)

The other critical criteria in the definition for archival materials that is presented here is the intention to provide access to the archival materials at some point in the future. Putting pictures into a shoebox and throwing it into some dark corner of the attic may, in some very minimal way, preserve them over time. However, there is no obvious intention to provide access to the photographs as might be the case if they were inserted chronologically into photo albums and put on an easily accessible bookshelf somewhere in the home.

Therefore access is defined as “the ability to identify relevant archival materials and locate them for retrieval.” Therefore, the baseline criteria to determine if something qualifies as archival materials according to the definition presented here is:

  1. It is an object that records information.
  2. It can be used at some point in the future as a memory aid or proxy for an event.
  3. It is preserved.
  4. It is made available for future access.

Furthermore, the definition provided here does not recognize the traditional distinction between information objects that have been published (such as books, audio recordings, video recordings, etc.) and unpublished records or archives (such as the drafts and notes used by the author to write a book). The definition of archival materials provided here is focused primarily on the ability of information to serve as a memory aid or proxy and not specifically as authentic evidence of a transaction or business process. It is also not concerned with the number of copies or manifestations of the information which may have been created and distributed. Likewise it is not concerned with determining if the creator of the information intended to keep it private or public. All of these assumptions serve to establish archival materials as a broad super-set of information objects which may include both records and published materials as sub-sets. For example, this argument implies that a ‘library’ is a type of archival collection that consists of predominately published materials.

The rationale is to provide a practical, inclusive definition that reflects the reality of current archives systems that provide access, for example, to collections of published and mass-produced newspapers, pamphlets, programmes, brochures, postcards and posters alongside collections of personal papers and business records.

Eric Ketelaar rightly points out that "we have to take into consideration that many of the artefacts that in the public perception are considered to be archives function in societal processes of accountability and evidence, just like records and archives-proper. ‘Archives by birth’ and ‘archives by baptism’ are not opposites...[both] serve to understand the past. (16)

Reflecting on the merger of Canada’s National Library and Archives in 2002, Ian Wilson (the National Librarian and Archivist) notes that users "want access to the extraordinary riches we hold and don't frankly care if something comes from a library or an archive. I suspect they don't care if it comes from a museum either. They want access to the stuff — a highly technical term so common to all of our institutions. They want access to the content, the stuff." (17)

Adapting a broad definition for archival materials that accommodates Wilson’s idea of ‘stuff’ also helps to account for the progressive blurring in the digital environment between information objects that are published, printed, or copied and those that are not. Debates about whether a webpage is a publication or a record is one good example. (18) Many webpages are both but, under the definition provided here, it is only archival material if it is preserved for future access and use. Just publishing a webpage (i.e. posting it to an IP address available via the global Domain Name Service) would not be considered preserving it. Additional steps would need to be taken to capture, store and maintain it over the long-term.

Another example is the thousands of users that have downloaded a digitized copy of the Magna Carta document from the British Library website. They are aware that they are not handling the original document. However, most are not really concerned about whether what they are downloading (and possibly adding it to their own archival collections) should be called a manuscript, a publication, or a certified copy. They are, however, quite happy to get access to a proxy that communicates and commemorates important ideas and events in the history of England and Western democracy. (19)

As Wilson notes, "the web world has little patience with institutional walls and boundaries, and even less patience with an information priesthood that tries to insert itself between the inquirer and the source material, or which seeks to limit direct access...The web enables us to overcome the territorial boundaries that have arisen over the decades — when we broke up the past, ripped it apart and put some in museums and some in archives and libraries, some in historic sites. The web can enable us to overcome those boundaries and reassemble the past in web world." (20)

Interestingly, the distinction between records and publications in classical times was less of an issue, with communication and access to information being the paramount concern. Ernst Posner notes that records from the Greek administrations were routinely transcribed onto stone slabs (steles) and displayed publicly: "To Greeks deviations from the exact wording did not diminish the authenticity of the copied text; a record on imperishable stone was deemed of greater value than the perishable original in the archives; and, in addition, the text on the stele was easier of access, just as the text of the modern published law is easier to use than the original act in the archives." (21)

Similarly, the definition of archival materials presented here is derived from the pragmatic viewpoint of future access and use rather than authenticity or evidence. Of course, authenticity and evidence are critical to the historical and legal value of archival materials. However, this definition proposes that they should not be the critical criteria in any definition of archival materials (i.e. fraudulent or unreliable archival materials might still contain information that someone wants to use).

The apparent disparity between archives and libraries and the materials (unique materials versus published copies) that they manage can probably be traced to the concurrent growth in the modern age of both administrative bureaucracies and the publishing industry which arose after the invention of the printing press. This led eventually to the emergence of archivists and librarians as specialists that were required to deal pragmatically with practical administrative issues.

The theory and institutions, which dogmatically locked their terminology and practices into place, followed later. For example, in discussing the history of the Dutch Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives, Eric Ketelaar notes that the Manual was proposed as a methodology or a best practice that was open for discussion amongst colleagues. “In practice, however, the rules were seen as inviolable dogmas and what was meant to be an instrument became a bible for archivists; the methodology became a doctrine.” (22)

Unfortunately the quest to identify and then defend immutable, universal principles has been a long dominant obsession within archival science and practice. The result is that practical and sound solutions from earlier times have often handicapped the ability of archival science to develop new theoretically sound solutions to address new information management opportunities and challenges. In particular the unprecedented wave of information creation and distribution brought about by the digital information revolution has created significant challenges for managing information according to traditional archival principles and practices, e.g. applying provenance-based, multi-level archival description to amorphous digital repositories of archival materials.

Therefore, the definition for archival materials proposed here is meant to free future analysis of archives systems from this burden and allow for a more inclusive term that expands rather than restricts the otherwise valuable insights that archival science may bring to bear on new and emerging information management challenges and opportunities.


  1. Schellenberg T.R. Modern Archives: principles and techniques (University of Chicago Press, 1956), p.15.
  2. Menne-Haritz, Angelika. “Access – the reformulation of an archival paradigm” Archival Science (1) (Kluwer, 2001).p.59.
  3. The Oxford Dictionary defines proxy as the “agency of substitute or deputy” Concise Oxford Dictionary (Clarendon Press, 1951). The Merriam-Websters’s Dictionary of Law defines proxy as “something serving to replace or substitute for another thing” Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law (Merriam-Webster, 1996).
  4. Duranti, Luciana. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Scarecrow Press, 1998), p.66.
  5. Newhagen, John “Interactivity, Dynamic Symbol Processing, and the Emergence of Content in Human Communication” The Information Society (20) (Taylor and Francis Inc, 2004), p.396.
  6. ICA Committee on Electronic Records. Guide for Managing Electronic Records from an Archival Perspective (International Council on Archives, 1997) p. 22.
  7. International Organization for Standardization. ISO 15489-1 Information and Document Management – Records Management (Part 1: General). (International Organization for Standardization, 2001), p. 3.
  8. Duranti, Luciana. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Scarecrow Press, 1998), p.42
  9. Thomassen, Theo. ‘Een Korte Introductie in de Archivistiek’ in Paradigma: Naar een nieuw paradigma in de archivistiek. (Stichting Archiefpublicaties, 1999), p.12.
  10. Menne-Haritz. “Access – the reformulation of an archival paradigm”, p.62.
  11. Merriam-Webster Dictionary [accessed at (January 04, 2007)]
  12. Committee on Electronic Records. Guide for Managing Electronic Records from an Archival Perspective (International Council on Archives, 1997), p.24.
  13. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘preserve’ as “1 : to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction : PROTECT. 2 a : to keep alive, intact, or free from decay b : MAINTAIN 3 a : to keep or save from decomposition.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary [accessed at (January 23, 2007)].
  14. International Organization for Standardization. ISO 14721 -- Open Archival Information System – Reference Model (2003), p 1-11.
  15. Rothenberg, Jeff. Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Information. (RAND Corporation, 1999), p.3. [last accessed at on January 30, 2007]
  16. Ketelaar, Eric. “The Archive as Time Machine” Proceedings of the DLM-Forum 2002. (INSAR European Archives News, 2002), p.579. ‘Archives by birth’ and ‘Archives by baptism’ is a reference Ketelaar makes to the distinction Marie-Anne Chabin has made in her book Je pense donc j’archive (L’Harmattan, 1999) where the former corresponds ‘to the records and archives in the archivists’ terminology and the latter meaning those documents having no primary record status or value, which have survived and are recognized as having a value to retain a memory (or: memories).’ Ibid, p.577.
  17. Wilson, Ian. “Converging Content” Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings (Archives & Museum Informatics, 2005) [last accessed at on January 25, 2007]
  18. See, for example, Barry, Rick. “Web Sites as Recordkeeping and ‘Recordmaking’ Systems” The Information Management Journal (38:6) (ARMA International, 2004).
  19. As an interesting aside, the document preserved at the British Library is, in fact, one of four known surviving copies, each differing slightly in size, shape and text. Diplomatics may refer to each of these four ‘copies’ as ‘originals’: “There may be more than one original of the same document created either at the same time or at subsequent times. This happens in cases where there are reciprocal obligations (contracts between two or more parties, treaties, conventions)” Duranti, Luciana. Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (Scarecrow, 1998), p.49.
  20. Wilson, Ian. “Converging Content” (2005).
  21. Posner, Ernst. Archives in the Ancient World (Society of American Archivists, 2003), p.101.
  22. Ketelaar, Eric. “Time future contained in time past. Archival science in the 21st century” Journal of the Japan Society for Archival Science (1), pp.3-4.

Originally published January 22, 2007 at