What is an Archives?

In movies and television, Hollywood often portrays archives as mysterious buildings filled with dusty shelves and stern archivists who keep people from accessing the records. In reality, archives like the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) are not dusty. Quite the opposite, our records storage rooms are clean and environmentally stable in order to preserve and protect the records. Nor are archivists trying to keep people from accessing records. Instead, they are eager to provide access to the documents, photos, maps, and other items preserved in the archives. 

The Society of American Archivists explains that the word archives can be used in three different ways. An Archives is an organization responsible for the preservation and management of archives; archives can also be used to refer to the building where archival materials are kept. Finally, the word archives can refer to the permanently valuable records kept because they have continuing value to the creator and other potential users.

The ADAH embodies all three definitions of archives. The ADAH building holds historically significant records donated by private parties or transmitted by State of Alabama agencies, where staff are responsible for caring for these records. In this week’s blog, we’ll address some of the most common misconceptions about archives to help government agencies, individual donors, and researchers better understand what an archives is and what it is not

Misconception #1 Archives are just like libraries 
This is one of the most commonly held misconceptions about archives. Several differences exist between libraries and archives. One of the essential distinctions between libraries and archives is that you can NOT “check out” materials from the archives. Once a state agency or private donor transfers records, the ADAH takes full responsibility for the records’ safekeeping. Archivists place documents in acid-free housings which are maintained in secure, environmentally controlled storage areas, and handled with care. To ensure the longevity and safety of records and assure that they are available when needed, archivists bring requested records to the researchers in a designated room. When a researcher completes their review of the records, an archivist will return the materials to the proper location in the storage room. 

A second difference between libraries and archives is that libraries contain books and media generally considered secondary sources rather than primary. The ADAH holds primary sources from both private individuals and governmental agencies. Primary sources are original documents and records created at a specific time in history, while secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. The materials at an archives are often one of a kind.

Another difference between libraries and archives is in how materials are arranged. Often, the secondary sources in libraries are arranged by subject and author. This would be impossible for archives that usually arrange records by their creator, regardless of the topic. For example, archivists keep records from a state agency with other documents from that agency, even if another agency also has records on the same topic. Researchers may need to review documents from several agencies while researching a subject. The practice of grouping records together according to their creator is fundamental to archival arrangement theory.

Misconception #2 When records go to an archives, they will never be available again. 
A concern that some agencies and private donors have when transferring their permanent records to ADAH is that they will lose access to those documents. This is false. The archives is not a storage center for state agencies. Instead, records at the archives are meant to be used. As mentioned above, archivists make collections available to both researchers and the records creators in the research room. While you cannot check out items from the research room, the records are still available to review during business hours. Visit the Research page on the ADAH website to learn more about our research room and plan a visit. 

A state agency’s staff member can contact the ADAH and often receive copies or scans of the records if they cannot come to the research room. 

Misconception #3 All records at the archives are made available to everyone. 
The idea that everything in an archives must be made available to anyone who requests to see the records is also incorrect. Most public records transmitted to the ADAH by government agencies are open records and will be made available to a researcher upon request, but some materials are closed. There are several reasons for this, including the presence of personally identifying information (PII), security reasons (i.e., floor plans of government buildings), ongoing litigation, and statutes or laws that require records to be closed for varying lengths of time. In rare cases, collections donated by private individuals will be closed for a specified amount of time for privacy reasons. 

When materials are transmitted to the ADAH and access must be restricted, archivists note this. Reference staff will not bring restricted records to researchers unless the researcher has legal clearance to view them. 

Misconception #4 Researchers discover “lost” materials in the archives.
Genealogy television shows sometimes portray finding a needed document at an archives as discovering a long-lost record. This portrayal has given rise to the idea that records are just waiting to be discovered by intrepid researchers. A root of this misconception stems from the fact that, unlike libraries, each item is not individually processed, and researchers may need to look through an entire folder or even a box to find a document. As a researcher at an archives, you may get to pour over records that potentially have been untouched for decades and this is exciting. Regardless of how many years it has been since someone looked at the records if the reference archivist provided you with the file or box, they were not lost.

Misconception #5 Archivists know about every single record in archives.
While records at an archives are not lost, and the ADAH archivists are experts at their jobs, there is no way that any single archivist could ever review every document, photo, and map in our collections, let alone have extensive knowledge of each. That said, archivists can recommend where you should start and provide guidance throughout your research journey to identify relevant records. Some archivists have special knowledge of certain topics or types of records, and at the ADAH, archivists communicate with one another to ensure that they are providing a researcher with as much information and assistance as possible. Take advantage of the research consultations offered by the ADAH reference archivists to help identify specific collections that will enhance your research!

Misconception #6 Archives only collect paper documents
The ADAH holdings, like most archives, include collections filled with records in different formats. Paper documents, photographs, bound ledgers, microfiche, moving images, and born-digital records are just a few archival record formats a researcher may encounter. The record format is much less important than the information contained within the record. 

The ADAH has several drawings and maps that were produced on cloth like the example below. These cloth records require special care and handling, but the information is as important as any information produced on paper or created on a computer.

1936 Map Showing Roads Leading into Demopolis, Alabama.

At times, the format of records may also require an archives to deny public access to the physical records and instead supply copies to a researcher.  Audiovisual materials in particular, can be produced in fragile formats that may also require obsolete equipment in order to be viewed.  An example of how the ADAH works to provide access to these challenging formats is the WSFA-TV collection. You can learn more about the collection and view a sample of digitized audiovisual items here: https://digital.archives.alabama.gov/digital/collection/wsfa

After reading this post, we hope you feel you better understand what an archives is, but you might have more questions. We touched on some of the most common misconceptions about archives, but not an exhaustive list. The ADAH staff is here to answer any questions or inquiries you may have. 

ADAH Records Management Archivist, Hannah Marshall Bawden wrote this blog

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