What is an Archives?

Most people picture an archives as an old building that stores ancient manuscripts, photographs, and other materials. The dictionary definition of "archive" and the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. tend to affirm this view. Look below to learn about archives. Stay tuned to find out more, and discover how archives collect, preserve, and tell stories important to the histories and lives of individuals across the nation and beyond.

The National Archives Building, Washington, D.C., image from the United States National Archives and Records Administration, (accessed June 4, 2010).

ar�chive \��r,kiv, �a,k-\ n -s [F & L; obs. F archive (now archives, pl.), fr. L archivum, archium, fr. Gk archeion government house, archeia (pl. of archeion) archives, fr. arche beginning, first place, government�more at ARCHI-] 1 a : a place in which public or institutional records (as minutes, correspondence, reports, accounts) are systematically preserved�usu. used in pl. b : a repository for any documents or other materials esp. of historical value <as diaries, photographs, private correspondence) (the Trotsky ~s at Harvard>�usu. used in pl. c : any repository or collection esp. of information <the ~s of memory> 2 : public or institutional records, historic documents, and other materials that have been preserved�usu. used in pl.

Webster�s Third New International Dictionary, s.v. �archive.�

An archives, however, is much more than a building and old documents. Archivists and staff at Cline Library's Special Collections & Archives define it in different ways. Some follow the traditional definition and consider it a physical place dedicated to preserving materials. Others take a more abstract view, seeing archives as the embodiment of ideas, memories, public values, and other intangible qualities. They all agree that archives are essential components of a successful society and vital to understanding past, present, and future people and perspectives. Below is a visualization of the diversity and significance of archives.