From the perspective of an archivist

From the perspective of an archivist

This week, I read an article titled: “The Archivist’s Perspective: Knowledge and Values.” The archival point of view interests me, since knowing it will help me understand the underlying intellectual foundations of my work as Archivist of the DC/SLA.

At once a comparison of the different perspectives of individuals involved in the life cycle of a record and a defense of the purpose and usefulness of archivists, the article describes very clearly what questions archivists considers in the course of their work. The overall theme in this explication is that archivists see (must see) the broader, wider picture. The context of record creation and use, the formats and regulations of documents, and their life cycle, are all considered by archivists in their work to preserve records and history for the future.

Archival knowledge focuses on four categories of information:

  • the creator/producer of the records
  • the records themselves
  • the uses of those records
  • the archival management of records for their use by current and future researchers

Knowledge of the context of records helps the archivist manage collections to make meaning-making possible for users.

Many of the things I learned from this article were not entirely new to me. One thing I had not connected with archival practice is the importance of knowledge of record-keeping systems. The life cycle of records makes up part of this  knowledge, including four stages: creation use, storage, and disposition. Important challenges can arise from the format of a document, which may be determined by the record-keeping system used in its creation. For example, the information may be laid out in an unusual way, the record may be in a form that requires additional technology to read, large formats may make storage and handling more difficult, or impermanent materials may hinder long-term preservation. Further, archivists may track and implement policy, since laws, regulations, best practices, conventions, and traditions may be expressed in records.

Ultimately, archives preserve material so they can be used. As I argue for digital preservation and book history, these authors believe that use determines value.

In the archivist’s view, saving and organizing the unique, original recorded information from past and present are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are warranted only to the extent that someone – indeed, a large number of someones – will use that information. (97)

That users will find unknown and diverse potential uses for archived material means that archivists need to organize and make materials accessible and interpretable for a “wide array of researchers” (98).

Regarding use, archivists must understand the primary use and its context (that is, the use for which the record was created; the use the record producer had in mind when creating the record), but must work to preserve the records for potential secondary uses. Secondary use describes any other purpose a document or set of records may put to. Rare book librarians and digital preservationists perform the same analysis and preparation in pursuit of the same goal.

At the end of the chapter, the authors propose five values important for archivists to have. Underpinning four of them is the belief that records should be preserved so they can be used, so that meaning can be made from them by contemporary and future researchers. Underpinning the last is a respect for privacy and the protection of sensitive information. The values are:

  1. “Archival records exist to be sued and not merely saved for their own sake”
  2. “Some records ought to be preserved, even after their immediate usefulness has passed”
  3. “Archival records ought to be preserved as completely and coherently as possible, with critical information about context and connections preserved”
  4. “Archival records ought to be organized properly and in a timely way so they can be used”
  5. “Sensitive information and information given in situations presumed to be private should be protected from use as long as that sensitivity remains”


Diplomatics The study of “the forms that documents take and the impact their style has on their content” (92)

Disposition In the life cycle of records, this is the stage during which records are either temporarily transferred to interim bulk storage, or are stored long-term in the archives (96)

Intellectual control “Knowing what the pieces of an archival collection are, where they come from, and how they fit together. Also defined as “an understanding of the records, the systems supporting them, and the regulations and conventions shaping them” (100)

Life cycle of records The stages that records pass through during their “lifetime”. Stages include: creation, use, storage, and disposition (93)

Original order The “organic” nature of records, or the order already imposed on them by the records creator as they were created (103)

Paleography The study of “the changing nature of writing” (92)

Physical control Knowing where archival materials or records are, so they can be retrieved when they are needed (101)

Provenance Based on the insight that the record producer/creator determines the content of their records, this describes the origin or source of a particular group of records (102-3)

Records continuum Another, more recent term, used to describe the stages records pass through during their “lifetime” (93)


O’Toole, J. M. and Cox, R. J. 2006. “The Archivist’s Perspective: Knowledge and Values.” In Understanding Archives & Manuscripts, 87-112.

RadioFan. 2012. NASA history archives. Image.


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