The Driving Force Behind the Archival Profession

Courtesy of Penn Law – Biddle Law Library Archives,law.upenn.edu

One of the discussions we had in my archives and manuscripts course this past spring semester was what we see as the driving force behind the archival profession, why even bother, why it’s important, and what keeps it going.

There is an inherent value in the activities undertaken by human beings, no matter what the source of those activities may be.  The results of these activities are usually represented by some type of documentation, such as written works, pictures, or sound or visual recordings.  Archiving the documents representing human activities is how society eventually “remembers” and ultimately this material provides additional value (secondary value) to future researchers and others.

Most importantly, the glimpse these materials provide into the creator’s perceptions, motivations, and ideas is invaluable.  In this way, archival materials provide a snapshot in time.  Depending on the method of appraisal and adherence to fonds d’archives, preserving the provenance and the possible secondary value within the materials is the driving force behind why archives exist.  Archives play a vital role in preserving and make available records of our heritage for current and future generations.

Leaning more towards archival materials’ historical importance, these materials played an integral role in how our history and therefore culture unfolded.  These materials were used at one time by only those we would describe as the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ were not given access.  There is an article by Terry Cook, What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift.  There are some wonderful quotes from this article that sum up the importance of the creation and maintenance of archives.

“without continuity with the past, future direction lacks legitmacy.”

“without understanding our predecessor’s struggles, we lose the benefit of their experiences.”

“surely if you have nothing to look backward to, and with pride, you have nothing to look forward to with hope.”

With the innovations in technology and creation of digital content, is the ability to create ‘space’ to store important materials which allows society to possibly gain greater access to archives.  Materials created before the digital age can now be digitally documented and presented through an online database, increasing access to those materials for more researchers and other interested parties while not using additional physical space.  This will help keep archives thriving and relevant.

What are your thoughts regarding the importance of archives, what drives them, and why we even bother?

Thanks for reading!

Terry Cook. (1997). What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift. (Archivaria; Archivaria 43.) Association of Canadian Archivists.

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