Archival science

From New World Encyclopedia

Archival science is a systematic study of record preservation, appraisal, and management. It deals with the safe storage, cataloguing and retrieval of documents and items.[1] Emerging from diplomatics,[2] the discipline also is concerned with the circumstances (context or provenance) under which the information or item was, and is, used. Archival Science also encompasses the study of past efforts to preserve documents and items, remediation of those techniques in cases where those efforts have failed, and the development of new processes that avoid the pitfalls of previous (and failed) techniques. The field also includes the study of traditional and electronic catalogue storage methods, digital preservation and the long range impact of all types of storage programs.[3]


Traditionally, archival science has involved time honored methods for preserving items and information in climate controlled storage facilities. This technique involved both the cataloguing and accession of items into a collection archive, their retrieval and safe handling. However, the advent of digital documents and items, along with the development of electronic databases has caused the field to revaluate the means by which it not only accounts for items, but also how it maintains and accesses both information on items and the items themselves.[4]

While generally associated with museums and libraries, the field also can pertain to individuals who maintain private collections (item or topic specific) or to the average person who seeks to properly care for, and either stop or slow down the deterioration of their family heirlooms and keepsakes.

Archival Science and course work pertaining to archival techniques as a course of study is taught in colleges and universities, usually under the umbrella of Library and Information science or paired with a History program.

Professional organizations, such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA), also exist to act to further the study and professional development of the field. In 2002 SAA published Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies,[5] but these guidelines have not been adopted by the majority of programs providing degrees for those entering the archives field. As a result, practitioners of archival science may come from a varied background of library, history, or museum studies programs, and there is little uniformity in the education of new archivists entering the job market.

An example of archival science program

Graduate school of library and information science often offers a certificate course for those who pursue archivist career. The following a typical course requirement for the certification.

Certificate in Archives, Records Management & Preservation

Core (required) courses:

  • Archives and Manuscripts
  • Fundamentals of Library Conservation and Preservation
  • Records Management
  • Internship (in an archive or records center)

Elective courses:

  • Organization and Management
  • Introduction to Metadata for Cataloging and Classification of Electronic Resources
  • The Development of Books and Printing
  • Digital Libraries

(From Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College.)[6]

Alternately, Academy of Certified Archivists offer certification examinations across the country. Applicants are usually required a graduate degree.

Archival appraisal

Unlike libraries, archives hold non-recurring items such as manuscripts, photos, letters, historical documents, and other unpublished materials. Archivists need to appraise whether the document should be retained and how long they should be retained (pretension schedule).

In the archival sense, appraisal is a process usually conducted by a member of the record-holding institution (often a professional archivist) in which a body of records are examined to determine which records need to be captured and how long the records need to be kept. Some considerations when conducting appraisal include how to meet the record-granting body’s organizational needs, how to uphold requirements of organizational accountability (be they legal, institutional, or determined by archival ethics), and how to meet the expectations of the record-using community.

Appraisal is considered a core archival function (alongside acquisition, arrangement and description, preservation, reference, and public programming) although the task of records appraisal is somewhat slippery and can occur within the process of acquiring records, during arrangement and description, and for the sake of preservation; further, public programming projects often prompt the reappraisal process. The official definition from the Society of American Archivists is as follows:

“In an archival context, appraisal is the process of determining whether records and other materials have permanent (archival) value. Appraisal may be done at the collection, creator, series, file, or item level. Appraisal can take place prior to donation and prior to physical transfer, at or after accessioning. The basis of appraisal decisions may include a number of factors, including the records' provenance and content, their authenticity and reliability, their order and completeness, their condition and costs to preserve them, and their intrinsic value. Appraisal often takes place within a larger institutional collecting policy and mission statement.”

History of appraisal theory

Muller, Feith & Fruin – Dutch Manual, 1898

Mostly concerned with the records of government bodies, the Dutch Manual assumed, generally, that the archives would keep each record it acquired. Before the era of mass duplication, this text was primarily concerned with the arrangement and description of records.

Sir Hilary Jenkinson, 1922

Sir Hilary Jenkinson was the Deputy Keeper of the Public Record Office during the early twentieth century. His best-known work, entitled Manual of Archive Administration, argues that archives are “documents which formed part of an official transaction and were preserved for official reference.” For Jenkinson, the records creator is responsible for determining which records should be transferred to the archives for preservation. Since in his view records are “impartial,” the task of selection is merely a matter of choosing documents that best describe “what happened.”

T. R. Schellenberg, 1956

T. R. Schellenberg authored Modern Archives in 1956, and represents a departure from Jenkinson’s approach, necessitated by the advent of mass duplication and an overwhelming influx of documents into archives. In his work, he divides records' values into primary values (the original value for the creator for their administrative, fiscal, and operating uses) and secondary values (their lasting value after they are no longer in current use, for those other than the original creator). He defines evidential value as deriving from the "evidence records contain of the organization and functioning of the Government body that produced them," and informational value as related to the "information records contain on persons, corporate bodies, things, problems, conditions, and the like, with which the Government body dealt." After defining the terms, Schellenberg details the manner in which an archivist could perform appraisal based on these criteria, placing a stress in every case on the importance of research and analysis on the part of the archivist.

According to Schellenberg, informational value is based on three criteria:

  • Uniqueness: The information in the record cannot be found anywhere else and must also be unique in form (i.e., not duplicated elsewhere).
  • Form: An archivist must, according to Schellenberg, consider the form of the information (the degree to which the information is concentrated) as well as the form of the records itself (whether or not they can easily be read by others, eg, punchcards and tape recordings would involve the use of expensive machinery to decipher).
  • Importance: When appraising records, one must judge records first based on the needs of the government itself, then on the needs of historians/social scientists, as well as local historians and genealogists; he encourages archivists to be wary of records with sentimental value.

Some current approaches to appraisal


According to Terry Cook, North American appraisal theory is unplanned, taxonomic, random and fragmented, and has rarely embodied the concepts of institutional and societal dynamics which would lead archivists to a working model that would allow them to appraise the broad spectrum of human experience

His model is a top-down approach, which focuses on key processes through which a particular function is expressed by intersecting with structures and individuals.

This requires a planned, logical approach—archivists embarking upon appraisals are equipped with an understanding of the record creator, its mandate and functions, its structure and decision-making processes, the way it creates records, and changes to these processes over time.

The benefits of this process are theoretical (identifying the important functions in society which should be documented) and practical (the ability to focus appraisal activities on records of the highest potential archival value).

Documentation strategies

Connected with the writings of Helen Samuels, documentation strategy aims to reach beyond institutional frameworks when appraising collections. In the past, she says, archivists have been passive, concentrating on researchers’ needs rather than understanding a document in context. This has led to a circular problem, as researchers state their needs based on the context that they deduce from the archives, and as the archives create an artificial context based on researchers’ stated needs. “Archivists are challenged to select a lasting record,” Samuels says, “but they lack techniques to support this decision making” (1992). Samuels argues that while archivists once needed to know and understand the complex bureaucratic structures of organizations, they must now understand the structures between organizations and ignore institutional boundaries.

However, this is increasingly impossible; archivists need to examine documentation in a comprehensive manner. A documentation strategy is, then, "a plan formulated to assure the documentation of an ongoing issue, activity or geographic area" (Samuels, 1992). Its development includes records creators, archivists, and users, and it is carried out through a system-wide understanding of the intended life-cycle of the record.

New Challenges in Archival Science

Library science and information science have merged into one interdisciplinary area. Likewise, many archives actively use information technology for the preservation and accession of their holdings and offer educational programs based upon primary documents. Library of Congress Digital Library project is one of those projects.

The use of information technology have broadened the horizons of archival science, and digital imaging, meta-data analysis, and record management and other related fields are becoming a part of archival science. Some archives such as the Internet Archive exclusively focus on the preservation of digitally produced materials. The U.S. Library of Congress is also developing their capacity for digital preservation.

Some Colleges and universities teaching archival science

See also


  1. A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
  2. Luciana Duranti and Heather MacNeil (Jan 1996), The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records: An Overview of the UBC-MAS Research Project Archivaria 1 (42): 46–67. Retrieved July 5, 2008.
  3. The Archival Paradigm—The Genesis and Rationales of Archival Principles and Practices. Council on Library and Information Resources. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
  4. Forward to Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
  5. Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies. Society of American Archivists. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
  6. Certificate in Archives, Records Management & Preservation, Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College. Retrieved June 16, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Books and journals

  • Archival Science. Archival Services. Pub Dept, 2004. ISBN 9780910653497 ISBN 0910653496
  • Boles, Frank. Selecting and Appraising Archives & Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005. ISBN 9781931666114
  • Cook, Terry. "Macroappraisal in Theory and Practice: Origins, Characteristics, and Implementation in Canada, 1950–2000," Archival Science 5:2-4 (2005) 101-61.
  • Duranti, Luciana and Heather MacNeil (Jan 1996). The Protection of the Integrity of Electronic Records: An Overview of the UBC-MAS Research Project. Archivaria 1 (42): 46–67.
  • Howe, Suzanne and Ken Lawrence. Introduction to Archival Science. [S.l.]: Archival Services, Inc, 2003. ISBN 0910653461 ISBN 9780910653466
  • Mason, Karen M. "Fostering Diversity in Archival Collections: The Iowa Women’s Archives," Collection Management; 27 (2) 2002, pp. 23-32.
  • Samuels, Helen. "Improving Our Disposition: Documentation Strategies," Archivaria 33 (Winter 1991-92): 125-40.

Online sources

External links

All links retrieved August 12, 2023.


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