ARCHIVES: Records of the Past

In celebration of American Archives Month, we share interesting facts about the importance and use of archives today.

While Halloween is commonly the headliner for October, it’s worth noting another event that takes place each October: American Archives Month.

Because most people rarely give much thought to archives, it’s easy to understate their importance, but consider how Lisa Lewis, archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, explained the importance of keeping archives.

“Archivists bring the past to the present,” Lewis said. “They’re records collectors and protectors, keepers of memory.They organize unique, historical materials, making them available for current and future research.”

It’s impossible to recognize the value of archives without also appreciating the primary medium that gives these records an opportunity for longevity – microfilm, of course. So, in honor of National Archives Month, let’s take a closer look at this important “keeper of memory.”

What exactly is an archive?

Look up the formal definition of archive and you’ll get something like: “a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.”

Importantly, though, an archive isn’t just the collection of documents – it’s the preservation of and access to that history. Archives differ from other collections of knowledge, such as a library, because they are firsthand sources – original documents ranging from reports, notes, photos, films or letters.

The Society of American Archivists eloquently states that these collections “strengthen collective memory by creating a reliable information bank that provides access to an irreplaceable asset – an organization’s, government’s or society’s primary sources.”

Archives can be as simple as a private keepsake box of pictures in your attic or a folder of files in a desk drawer. Public archives can range from community, city, county or state collections to the USA’s largest archive, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There, the number of records reaches into the billions, and many of them are kept on microfilm.

Microfilm has long been a useful tool for the archivist, and remains so today in spite of the digital era. The National Archives and Records Administration relies on microfilm because it’s still a low-cost, reliable and long-term standardized storage solution. Along with its life expectancy of half a millennium, the primary needs for viewing microfilm are a machine with light and magnification.

Jan Ferrari, Director of State and Local Records Management and State Records Administrator in Texas once wrote, “However attractive digitization may be in our current technological environment, I value its hard-working counterpart, microfilm, even more highly. Microfilm can be digitized for ease of access, and digitized images can also be microfilmed. It is truly the best format to protect our history.”

Why we need archives

The need for recording history shouldn’t require explanation. But there’s a subtle, important difference between archives and recorded history as we alluded to before – that archives are original, firsthand documents as opposed to an author or historian’s interpretation of them.

Preserving original documents for future generations allows us to sustain a growing demand for transparency and accountability in government and business. Archives not only protect history, but also protect the rights, property and identity of people – some of the fundamentals this nation was founded upon.

Archives importantly serve as proof that certain events occurred and explain how they happened. They aren’t just a version history – but original history.

Who needs/uses archives?

It’s easy to think of archives as dusty stacked boxes upon boxes of film reels in a dank basement of some library. That’s a fairly common portrayal in pop culture. The reality, however, is that archives are for more than just academics, journalists and detectives. While it is true that academia is a frequent user of archive material, plenty of other people and professions do as well.

Recent advances in genealogy have led to an increase in individual research into family histories. Archives are a major resource for such information.

Developers, planners and architects use archives for information about layouts, buildings and environments.

Businesses can get recorded financial data or other research that helps them forecast the future by understanding the past.

Artists and designers take inspiration from past works found in archives.

Hobbyists can use archives to learn more about their passions and other people who shared them.

It’s likely that you have found yourself rifling through an archive of some form at one time or another, and thankfully media like microfilm will continue to capture our important records so that generations to come can build on what we have learned, accomplished and started.

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