Academic journal article International Social Science Review

An Introduction to Archival Practices

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

An Introduction to Archival Practices

Article excerpt

When people ask me what I am studying in graduate school, I keep my answer vague--leaving it at I am working on my Masters. There are two reasons for this. First, the topic that I am studying has a very long title and people tend to get overwhelmed (or lose interest) before I end my sentence. Secondly, when I do risk it and share that I am studying Archives and Records Management, their response is along the lines of 'oh, you're in library school,' and the resulting explanation of the differences between archives and libraries has become a memorized speech that tends to be met with confusion.

Now this may seem like a random rant so let me give a little bit of context. I am a graduate student at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information, iSchool in Toronto, Ontario, Canada I am working towards dual masters; a Masters of Information (MI) in Archives and Records Management (ARM) and a Masters of Museum Studies (MMSt). While the iSchool does offer Library and Information Science (LIS) as one of its MI concentrations, there are six other concentrations that have nothing to do with libraries. One of the most aggravating comments from people outside of the faculty--at least to me as an archivist in training--is that I am basically a librarian. To the average person that has little to no knowledge of the differences between librarians and archivists, calling them the same thing may seem trivial. However, the differences in the theories and practices of the fields are vast. My ultimate goal with this article is to explain archives and the archival profession as separate entities from that of Library Sciences.

In order to show how archivists are not librarians and how the two fields differ from one another, let me attempt to explain the basics of archival theory. As a precursor, this archival theory will be based on the Canadian archival tradition. Europe, Britain, America, and Australia, as well as most every other country, have developed their own archival practices, but they are similar in many respects. Archives have been around since records were first kept. However, the field of archives, and the theory of archival science, is fairly recent in the scope of history.

The archival theory utilized today began one hundred twenty years ago with Samuel Muller, Johan Feith, and Robert Fruin, who wrote an influential book entitled the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives. (1) Their work in archival theory would become the foundations of the principles of provenance and original order. They started with their definition of archives as "the whole of the written documents, drawings and printed matter, officially received or produced by an administrative body or one of its officials..." (2) While this definition is limiting in today's world and could not have anticipated digital documentation, it provides a stepping stone upon which archival theorists have built.

Archival tradition stands on the pillars of provenance, and respect of original. Provenance is the theory that the archives must be kept separate. Records should not be combined or mixed with the documents of other creators, or arranged based on their subject or chronology. The Society of American Archivists gives a nice definition of provenance; "The origin or source of something--Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection." (3) The theory of respect of original order is that the records should be kept in the order that the creator put them it. Heather MacNeil conveys these ideas in a concise and easily digestible manner. She states that "Keeping the records of one creator separate from those of another is intended to preserve the unique identity of that aggregation, while keeping records in the order in which they were maintained by their creator aims to protect the integrity of the relationships between and among its parts." (4) These theories are the pillars that govern archives and are the main "rules" that an archivist follows. …

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