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Archival Basics and Glossary

are the organized noncurrent records of an institution or organization retained for their continuing value in providing a) evidence of the existence, functions, and operations of the institution or organization that generated them, or b) other information on activities or persons affected by the organization. Derived from the Greek word for “government house,” the term “archives” also refers to the agency responsible for selecting, preserving, and making available noncurrent records with long-term value and to the building or part of the building housing them.
are instruments for the communication of information, regardless of their physical form or characteristics. They may be in the form of an impression on paper, a magnetic impulse, or a beam of light. The word comes from the Latin for official paper or that which teaches. Essentially, documents provide evidence or support of an action, condition, or entity.
are documents (in any format) accumulated, collected, and/or generated by a private individual(s) and subsequently donated to or acquired by a repository to ensure their retention and public accessibility. “Manuscripts” include personal papers with organic unity, artificial subject collections of documents acquired from diverse sources, and individual documents acquired and retained by a repository for their potential research use. Manuscripts may be differentiated from archives in that they are informal records, privately acquired and maintained for their subject matter content. Manuscript collections are often described as “personal” or “private” papers. The term “manuscript collection” may also refer to records brought together for a specific purpose by a repository or a collector.
are all documents, regardless of form, produced or received by any agency, officer, or employee of an institution or organization in the conduct of its business. Documents include all forms of recorded information, such as: correspondence, computer data, files, financial statements, manuscripts, moving images, publications, photographs, sound recordings, drawings, or other material bearing upon the activities and functions of the institution or organization, its officers, and employees. A document becomes a record when it is placed in an organized filing system for use as evidence or information. It becomes archival when transferred to a repository for preservation and research use.

is the body of principles and practices which archivists follow to group records in such a way as to reflect the manner in which they were held and used by the office or person creating the records. It involves the fundamental principles of respect des fonds, provenance, and sanctity of original order. The key units in archival arrangement are: record groups, sub-groups, and record series.
The principle of archival arrangement according to which each deposit (fonds) should be maintained as a separate entity, even if other fonds cover the same or similar subjects. It requires archivists to respect the integrity of the body of records at the time it is deposited in the archives.
The principle of archival arrangement according to which each deposit of records should be placed within an overall arrangement or classification scheme that reflects its origin and relation to other deposits from the same administrative body.
The principle of archival arrangement according to which the creator’s arrangement of files and documents within a deposit should be maintained.
A body of organizationally related records, normally large in size and established on the basis of provenance to accommodate the records of major organizational units and functions of an institution.
Smaller (than record groups) bodies of organizationally related records placed within a record group to correspond to the subordinate administrative units that collectively form the record group.
A systematic gathering of documents that have a common arrangement and common relationship to the functions of the office that created them. Record series are the filing units created by offices at all levels in an institutional hierarchy. Each series will be arranged internally according to a system established and modified by its creators. Boundaries between one record series and the next are sometimes razor-sharp and sometimes fuzzy. Typical record series include subject files, project files, chronological correspondence files, client files, applicant files, financial records files, voucher files, and minutes and agenda files.

is the retrieval of information from archival and manuscript holdings, finding aids, reference tools, and staff memories. Regardless of purpose, such as administrative action, publication of a book, preparation of a course paper, genealogy, or personal curiosity, any retrieval of information should be considered as use.
is the examination of documents to extract information or develop an interpretation of an event. Direct use occurs whenever a person seeking information asks questions about or examines archives and manuscript holdings, primarily in the research room. It also occurs when files are returned to originating offices or when photocopied or microfilmed documents are sent to off-site users.
is the entire range of results of direct use of archives. Examples of outcomes of research include the administrative staff meeting that hears a colleague’s report utilizing documents in the archives to clarify why an institutional policy was changed in 1969; the hundreds of persons who view an archives exhibit on local architecture; or the thousands of individuals who examine the cover of the telephone that reproduces an 1890 photograph of your institution. Indirect users also include the readers of scholarly monographs that are based in part on information extracted from archival documents. of the value and purpose of the archival program.


  1. Querying the researcher to draw out the specific nature of the subject as well as secondary aspects of the subject that can serve as leads to documentation sources.
  2. Translating the terms and concepts of the inquiry into the terms and concepts of the archives’ reference apparatus.
  3. Explaining finding aids, archival methodology, and the nature of manuscripts and records documentation
  4. Guiding the researcher to the appropriate finding aids and/or records.
  5. Retrieving the records that appear to be relevant to the researcher’s inquiry.
  6. Informing the researcher of policies and practices for making copies and handling documents to ensure that the records are not damaged or disarranged.
  7. Consulting with the researcher during and after the visit to determine how well the records answered the question or led to new questions.

William J. Maher