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American Archives Month: You Are a User of Archives…And You May Not Even Know It!

October 8, 2009

AAM 2009

Sponsored by the Society of American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists, American Archives Month is held in October to celebrate the importance of archives as institutions that preserve and shape individual memory and the collective memory of communities.

Last year during Archives Month, we posted a blog entry describing what archives are, what archivists do, and why archives are important. This year the focus of Archives Month is the impact of archives. Archivists can collect statistics about the numbers of people who physically visit their repositories and use their collections or who receive information from or about the archives via email, telephone, or websites. Additionally, beyond these patrons are people who utilize archives indirectly because they benefit from the dissemination of historical information based on research conducted in archives. As archivist Paul Conway wrote in 1986, “users of archives are…all beneficiaries of historical information. By this definition, it is unlikely there are many non-users of archives.”

Put another way, when asking who benefits from archives, the answer is “YOU”! This is true even if you’ve never set foot in an archives. Every day you rely on the ability of organizations to preserve accurate records and make them accessible and depend on the work of researchers who study these records and share their findings. Simultaneously, you encounter ways in which past events – big and small, from the distant past and the very recent past – are studied as a way of making sense of the present. Consider the following scenarios in which archives play a vital, if not sometimes unrecognized, role:

  • You contact your alma mater to request a duplicate copy of your high school or college transcript.
  • You watch a documentary that includes historic images or video footage.
  • You watch a historical movie in which crew members consulted historians or archival sources in order to accurately (although not perfectly!) recreate life in the past.
  • You read a book – a work of non-fiction in any subject or even a work of non-fiction – in which the author used historical documents or cites other scholars who have studied historical records.
  • You read a newspaper article or watch a news program that cites government or business reports, includes statistics showing change over time, shows images or footage of events in the past, or features an expert discussing the history behind a current situation.
  • You consult past contracts, reports, policy statements, correspondence (including email), project documents, financial information, or other files at your place of employment in order to perform daily business transactions, comply with legislative and regulatory requirements, protect the interests of the organization and its stakeholders, and conduct research and development of new products or services.
  • You watch or listen to a sporting event that contains a “today in history” feature, cites players’ statistics over a period of time, or includes historic images or footage of an important athlete or event.
  • You contact your bank or other lending institution to confirm your account balances.

Moreover, chances are that you are an archivist for your own records. This is the case if you manage personal and/or family records such as birth certificates; school transcripts, report cards, or diplomas; pay stubs and other employment records; deeds; mortgages; insurance records; and financial documents such as tax records and bank statements. You may also be an archivist who preserves your family’s history by saving ancestors’ letters and other records as well as historic photographs or home movies. Professional archivists do the came kind of work, although they bring knowledge, skills, values, and training to the endeavor of preserving extensive collections of records for the indefinite future and making them accessible to researchers.


Paul Conway, “Facts and Frameworks: An Approach to Studying the Users of Archives,” American Archivist 49 (Fall 1986): 396.

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