What Is An Archives?

Welcome to the inaugural post of the Vermont Archives Month Blog! We will be using this space over the coming months to explore archives and this year’s theme of Vermont Voice and Vote. We wanted to start by looking a little bit at the history of Archives Month and the importance of archival records.

American Archives Month began as one week in October, 1989. It was started by the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York to raise awareness about the importance of archives. It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on around the state of New York and the rest of the United States, ultimately expanding to a full month of recognition. By 2006, Archives Month was officially promoted by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the largest American professional organization for archivists, and has now become the cornerstone for the promotion and celebration of archives. For more information about American Archives Month, you can visit SAA’s website.

Inside archival record storage at the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration, Middlesex.

But what is an archives? How are they different from libraries and what’s so important about archival records anyway?

Libraries and archives are both places that collect and compile informational resources. But while libraries have published materials like books and journals that can be found in many places, archives may contain documents that don’t exist anywhere else. Libraries contain secondary sources – information on a topic compiled from many different sources. Archives, on the other hand, are made up of primary sources. These are the records that were made at the time an historical event happened or in the course of daily life – the map drawn up by the original settlers of a town, the case file that made up a lawsuit, the first-hand diary of a 19th century farmer. Because these records are unique and serve as evidence of the past, they must be carefully preserved so they can endure for the future – as these records have, in addition to providing rich resources for historical research, a direct impact on our lives.

Archival records come in many different analog and digital formats.

Archival records are not some dusty things sitting in a vault waiting to be discovered. Records can protect lives by providing proof of identity or citizenship. Records protect property through land deeds, wills, divorce decrees, showing who owns what. Records protect legal rights through court decisions, adoption proceedings, and military service. Records restore order after a disaster the documentation of administrative decisions. And records preserve our history so that we can learn for our future. You can read more about the importance of records on the Council of State Archivists’ website.

Keep watching this space for more posts celebrating archives and related to this year’s theme of Vermont Voice & Vote!

Note: Why is it “an archives”?

American and Canadian archivists tend to use the term “archive” as a verb to mean the act of transferring records to a repository, and the term “archives” to mean that repository – a singular gathering place of collections of records. And because “archives” is referring to one singular place, it’s treated as a singular thing (“an”/“is” rather than “some”/“are”).

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