October is American Archives Month
Sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, the Council of State Archivists, and Lockheed Martin, American Archives Month promotes the importance of records of enduring history value in order to enhance public recognition for the people and programs that are responsible for maintaining our communities’ vital historical records.
What are archives?
In the course of daily life, individuals and families, organizations (e.g. schools, universities and colleges, businesses, churches), and governments create and keep information about their activities. Once these records become non-current, a portion are judged to possess enduring historical value; the records within this portion, and the places in which they are kept, are called ‘archives.’ Many records in archives are textual; these materials include correspondence, newspapers, diaries, maps, scientific data, and financial and legal documents. However, archives are much more than “old papers”! They also include photographs and artifacts as well as video and sound recordings. Increasingly, archives must also manage and preserve electronic records such as e-mails.
What do archivists do?
Archivists are professionals who assess, collect, organize, preserve, and help patrons identify and use historically significant collections of unique materials.
Why are archives important?
In his 2008 presidential address, outgoing Society of American Archivists president Mark A. Greene asserted that “archivists are professionals who shoulder the power of defining and providing access to the primary sources of history, primary sources that protect rights, educate students, inform the public, and support a primal human desire to understand our past.” By preserving and providing access to primary sources, archives also document the breadth of individual human experiences and protect collective memory. Additionally, archival records of local, state, and federal governments and public and private institutions are essential in making these organizations accountable and their actions transparent.
While historians and genealogists are the most obvious users of archival resources, archival collections can be significant for any person whose project requires a historical perspective or dimension. Archivist Bruce Dearstyne provided these examples in his article “What is the Use of Archives?” (American Archivist, Winter 1987):
Businesses, governments, and other institutions need archival records for retrospective policy analysis and to provide continuity in administration. Government records document the responsibilities of government and the rights of its citizens. They are often essential in legal matters – to document agreements, substantiate claims, and prove contentions. Engineers use old plans, maps, sketches, reports, and specifications for information on the location, age, and physical characteristics of the infrastructure … Environmental researchers use historical records to study land use patterns, water use, and other environmental issues. Medical researchers use patient files and other records to understand genetic and familial diseases and to trace the impact of epidemics (81).
For more information about archives, see the article “What is an Archives?”
(Information in this blog post came from the Society of American Archivists American Archives Month public relations kit.)
Did You Know?
…that, established in 1934, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) collects, preserves, and provides access to documents created by the federal government? The National Archives system encompasses the main building in Washington D.C. and a second storage facility in College Park, Maryland, as well as fourteen regional archives, seventeen federal records centers, and twelve presidential libraries located across the country.
…that NARA deals with a staggering quantity of records, as evidenced by these statistics reported by Archivist Allen Weinstein in his 2007 “State of the Archives” speech and his address at the Society of American Archivists 2007 annual meeting:
- As of November 2007, NARA faced a backlog of “three billion pages of unprocessed records, including many that must be reviewed for declassification.”
- In fiscal year 2007, NARA archivists processed more than 450 million pages of records; they also reviewed and released 1.3 million pages of formerly classified records “over which the archives has declassification authority.”
- Government agencies are producing increasing amounts of records that must be handed over to the National Archives. For example, while President Reagan’s administration produced almost 44 million textual pages, President Clinton’s administration created 78 million textual pages and an additional 20 million e-mails. If the Clinton e-mails were printed, they “would surpass the number of textual pages of Presidential records generated by President George H.W. Bush’s administration.”
…that NARA and its partners are developing an Electronic Records Archives (ERA) that will preserve almost all types of electronic documents, no matter the specific software or hardware used to create them?