So, what is an Archive?

The term “memory institution” has been occasionally tossed around to encompass libraries, archives, and museums. However, when it comes to identifying differences between the three types of institutions, it seems that many people can’t really put a finger on what their separate functions are. It is important to be aware of the differences between the three because it impacts the way you will need to do research in them. Here is a quick and dirty look at some differences.

Archives: The Society of American Archivists has a very long and detailed definition of archives, but for our purposes, we’ll say that the word “archives” can mean a couple of things. First, it can indicate records created or received by a person or agency in daily business or life. These records are determined to have permanent value because they provide evidence of actions. And second, archives can also mean an institution that collects, preserves, and often provides access to permanent records. (That’s us!) Archives contain original and unpublished materials. Keep in mind that these types of records come in many forms: photographs, paper records, electronic records, even cattle brands that came to us on pieces of leather. To learn more about how archives organize their collections, CLICK HERE

Libraries: So while archives are the place to find original, non-published materials, libraries are the institutions that collect, store, and often make available published materials. (We do have a library here at the State Archives, known as the Arizona Collection. Our  materials in this collection support our archival materials.) Also, other divisions of our agency serve more of a library-oriented role. To learn more about these divisions, visit the website of the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records.

Museums: Museums collect, store, and often display artifacts. Sometimes, we’ll get calls from people with a terrific postcard collection, or who are looking for stamps or trading post tokens, etc…these types of materials are not records, and are more likely to be found in a museum. Many types of museums exist, including history, science, art, archaeology, etc. Several museums include libraries and archives that can explain or accompany their collections of objects. Our agency (ASLAPR), does have a Capitol Museum Division, which you are encouraged to visit!

But what about ephemera?! Ephemera – which is defined as printed, transitory material that is not intended to be saved – is sometimes some of the best stuff to save. But because of its nebulous nature, it’s difficult to classify, and therefore difficult to identify where it should go. Ephemera can include pamphlets, postcards, handbills, etc. It can document grassroots, underground movements and communities, and give a good “unofficial” view of history. And it can be absolutely delightful. It can also easily fall into the collecting scope of all three kinds of institutions: libraries, archives, and museums. Never underestimate the value of ephemera!