Close this search box.
Close this search box.


[The archivist] exists in order to make other people’s work possible, unknown people for the most part and working very possibly on lines equally unknown to him: some of them perhaps in the quite distant future and upon lines as yet unpredictable. His Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his Aim, to provide, without prejudice or afterthought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge.

-Jenkinson (1948)

The perspectives of different information professions tend to be understood in terms of their manifestation in the practices of physical institutions. Over the past two centuries, a range of information institutions have evolved that play distinct roles within society. These roles reflect the many ways in which information is created, used, valued, preserved, and disposed of by individuals, organizations, and communities in the conduct of business, scholarship, learning, and personal affairs. Figure 1 outlines some of the distinct and overlapping activities of three major information institutions-libraries, museums, and archives-that today are increasingly engaged in both organizing and providing integrated access to digital information resources.


  • Identify, acquire, preserve, and provide access to the world’s published knowledge
  • Promote equity of access to information
  • Promote intellectual freedom
  • Support education and continuous learning and research
  • Support the development of information literacy in society
  • Serve as focal points for communities and promote community interests


  • Identify, acquire, preserve, and exhibit unique, collectible, or representative objects
  • Promote cultural, community, and familial identity and understanding
  • Provide experiences where visitors can make connections between content and ideas
  • Serve as memory institutions for a culture
  • Support formal and informal learning and research
  • Serve as focal points for communities and promote community interests


  • Identify, appraise, preserve, and make available documentary materials of long-term value (essential evidence) to the organization or public that the archives serves
  • Ensure the accountability of government by preserving public records and making them available to the citizenry as is legally and ethically appropriate
  • Ensure the accountability of nongovernmental institutions to their shareholders, boards, and other constituents
  • Preserve unique or collectible documents
  • Serve as memory institutions for a culture
  • Support scholarly, administrative, and personal research

Fig. 1. Societal roles of major information institutions

Figure 1 also shows how those activities project the societal roles, functions and values vested in a particular institution. Libraries, for example, are engaged in the tangible activities of identifying, acquiring, preserving, and providing access to published information. They are also engaged in less tangible, value-laden activities such as promoting intellectual freedom and serving as focal points for various communities.

It is assumed that seamless integration of information resources is a prerequisite for moving beyond the walls of individual physical institutions into virtual information space and knowledge construction practices. Transparency (i.e., rendering differences between diverse information resources invisible to end users) achieved through homogeneity in information retrieval methods and display of retrieved materials also seems to be important. Asserting individual institutional or professional differences always carries with it the potential to confuse the user and impede interoperability. It is important, however, to recognize that variant practices have arisen for sound intellectual and pragmatic reasons as institutions have fulfilled their various societal roles and managed their collections from diverse but equally legitimate perspectives. A new paradigm needs to be created that will facilitate the right blend of commonality and distinctiveness. We need to better understand when it is useful to maintain distinctions and when it is useful to create transparency so that we can ask to what extent each community’s practices and principles might endure and in what form.

The Society of American Archivists (Bellardo and Bellardo 1992) defines archives as “(1) The ‘non-current records’ of an organization or institution preserved because of their continuing value; the term ‘archival records’ or ‘archival materials’ signifies any physical medium which is employed to transmit information, such as paper, photographs, audio or video tape, computer tapes or disks, etc. (2) The ‘agency or program’ responsible for selecting, preserving, and making available archival materials; also referred to as an ‘archival agency.’ (3) The ‘building’ or part of a building where such materials are located.”

Additional definition is required to help us understand more fully the roles that archives can and should play in the digital environment. First, archival institutions serve an important legal function in society. Archival institutions are generally legally constituted entities responsible for identifying, managing, and preserving the integrity of an institution’s official records of long-term value. These activities prove the actions of the institution and provide essential protection for the institution’s legal rights and those of its constituents or the general citizenry. Archival institutions enable legally constituted access to records, access that must also constantly address a range of legal concerns that become more pressing in the digital environment. These concerns include intellectual property, the privacy of individuals mentioned in materials, the conditions under which certain types of materials can be accessed and made available, and the protection of the integrity of digital materials from accidental or deliberate tampering. Concern for retaining the evidential value of records has placed the archival community at the vanguard of research and development in digital preservation and authentication.

Second, because archives focus on records, archivists have an awareness of the societal, institutional, and individual construction of memory and an understanding of the implications of how that memory is represented and transmitted over time. This awareness becomes increasingly important as more of the world’s collections are reformatted and represented online. It is also important for retaining evidence in time and over time, especially through digital preservation processes.

Third, libraries have focused predominantly on the organization, dissemination, and use of existing information (traditionally in published form, but this is changing rapidly), archives focus on these activities too, but are also intimately engaged in the creation of information and its ultimate disposition (either destruction or permanent retention). Since the 1960s, the archival community has worked closely with the creators of records and record-keeping systems to develop means to identify and preserve digital records that have no paper counterpart. The problem of what to do about records that are born digital has forced archivists to reexamine and reinvent their principles and practices in light of a digital challenge that emerged before the advent of digital libraries. This engagement at various points in the life cycle of materials also helps to establish a bridge to information and knowledge production processes and communities from electronic publishing to digital asset management that have traditionally fallen outside the domain of bibliographic information.


Skip to content