The object of an archive is to organize and store media. It can house printed texts, film, electronic data, or any other medium capable of being stored. At the same time, the archive itself is a medium – a medium of storage, so that the material it holds is situated in often opposing roles as protected material and material available for use. This dialectic between storage and retrieval complicates the objectives of an archive, so that every archive must find its own synthesis between these two purposes.

The word “archive” cames to the English language from French, having been derived from the Latin “archivum” which descends in turn from the Greek “archeion” (residence of the “archon”).1 In ancient Greece the archon was a superior magistrate, the source of the law – and all official papers were filed at his residence. In its earliest meaning, therefore, “archive” had the additional connotation of being a seat of power, the physical home of the law itself.2

Today the word carries a more matter-of-fact significance: “a place in which public records or other important historic documents are kept.”3 (It may also refer to any record or document so preserved.)4 The generality of this definition conceals the surviving role of the archive as a seat of power in the older sense of the archeion. Because archives tend to be maintained by leading institutions in fields like history, law, medicine, science, genealogy, and business, both their contents and the definition of proper “archival” materials are subject to controversies which mirror larger power struggles in society. The simplicity of the definition belies the complicated array of questions and issues that surrounds the phenomenon of the archive.

Although the term “archive” may be applied to various collections, a collection is usually given the formal name “archive” only when it meets a narrower definition of the term: “official or organized records of governments, public and private institutions and organizations, groups of people and individuals, which are no longer needed to conduct current business, but are preserved.”5 In modern English the word is almost always used in the plural form for such cases.6

In the broader sense, the term “archive” may be divorced from its institutional sense, and applied to any collection amassed with care for the preservation and unity of the materials within. It may be public or private. It can be a library, museum, government depository, corporate record-house, or even a personal collection of texts. Its essential quality is that it materializes memory; the archive is thus a prosthetic medium, supplementing the human brain’s limited capacity for storage.7

While an archive is distinguished from a mere collection on the grounds of its preservative function, it is almost impossible to find an archive that exists exclusively to preserve its materials. The notion of a sealed chamber where texts are locked in perpetuity purely for the sake of maintaining their existence may be the ideal Platonic form of the archive, but in reality almost every archive permits at least occasional usage of its materials, even if only when no other source is available. However, the private nature of many archives approaches this ideal by limiting their accessibility to select persons, rendering them off-limits to large segments of a population which may have an interest in their contents. When the catalogue of a restricted archive is itself placed off-limits, its contents are unknown to those without access, rendering the archive hidden or suppressed. The possibility of a secret archive recalls the storage medium’s original association with the archon as an instrument of power.

A number of commentators have disagreed on the quality most essential to the concept of the archive. Stressing the process of the archive’s formation, Sir Hilary Jenkinson has argued that an archive is not an artificial or deliberate collection of objects (as in a library or museum) but a collection which accumulates naturally in the course of administrative affairs. Distinguishing the “natural” archive from “artificial” collections, Jenkinson describes archives as “unselfconscious byproducts of human activity, [with] the objective formlessness of raw material, compared with the subjective roundedness of literary artefacts like books.”8 An archive, therefore, arises somewhat spontaneously without special regard for its ultimate nature. T.R. Schellenberg, on the other hand, claims that material is not to be considered “archived” until it has been deposited in an institution dedicated to its preservation; thus the primary quality of an archive is that its material is specially selected as worthy of preservation.9 In either viewpoint an archive functions as a storage medium; but in Shellenberg’s it also takes the form of a kind of text in itself, with a more deliberate message in its particular accretion of content.

Before the word “archive” was widely adopted in English-speaking countries in the nineteenth century, its meaning was carried by the words “record” or “historical record”.10 Modern usage, however, distinguishes between the archive (as the whole) and the record (as a part). The word “record” also has a more technical meaning, in the sense that it must be an authentic and incontrovertible document or account.11, 12 This distinction leaves room for both of the above understandings of archives. In Jenkinson’s view, the burden of integrity rests solely on the individual records within the archive, and the archive itself is neutral with regard to any truth content or value as a statement. Under Schellenberg’s understanding, both the records themselves and the archive they belong to share responsibility for integrity, because the proper selection of records gives an archive a particular character which is not neutral in value.

According to Jacques Derrida, every archive is by nature both revolutionary and conservative at the same time.13 It is liberal in its general purpose as a repository, whose function is to serve (either society or some part thereof) and to extend the cultural patrimony. Its conservative character derives from its need to maintain order, and the inherent necessity of caution and protection against outside forces, decay, and entropy. This interplay of opposite qualities is noted by Walter Benjamin, who describes the “dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder” in his personal archive of literary treasures.14 While an archive must be arranged in some order if it can function, this order is always imposed according to a system external to the discrete texts themselves. An archive always presents itself, in some small part at least, as a forbidding agglomeration of unrelated items whose content always remains somewhat further away from the user than the physical items themselves. This is a structural problem with the use of any medium as a prosthetic; its use carries the price of atrophy in the organ it supplements. Because the “artificial memory” of archived material is mediated – because it is not immediately accessible – it tends to represent at the same time an extension of memory and a reification of forgetting.

The purpose-oriented function of the instututional archive may be qualified by the idealistic principles of perpetual preservation and completeness. There is, of course, a practical function to both of these: archived items increase in value with age, and a collection (including any subset of an archive) gains a certain value from the user’s perspective when nothing is missing from it – even if any one item may never be consulted, the fact of completeness obviates the user’s need to inquire before approaching the archive site.15 Many archives aim for completeness in particular collections; the most extreme examples are the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris and the Library of Congress in Washington DC, two of the largest collections in the world, both of which demand the deposit of all materials published in their respective countries.

One especially modern incarnation of the archive is the database, which not only stores records and defines relationships between them, but makes records searchable and retrievable much faster than a traditional paper or microfilm filing system. The internet can function in a similar way when information is gathered by search engines, but taken as a whole the internet violates Schellenberg’s requirement of selectivity; its mutability and decentralization also make it unstable as a storage medium. Nevertheless, with the advent of the “Semantic Web” which is forecast to organize vast amounts of useful data through the internet, a number of closely monitored and protected independent web databases appear to be taking shape. The question of completeness is often at least as critical to a database as to traditional archives, because not only does missing data represent a lack of information but it also tends to skew the statistics that databases are so useful at extrapolating. Many databases (especially on the internet) are works in progress, and completeness is often only defined within certain bounds (e.g. all records within a certain date range). The utility of completeness is also subject to various forms of verification and certification, recalling Schellenberg’s notion of the archive as something with its own particular truth value.

Library of Congress, Jefferson Building, Washington DC

For the private archivist, issues of emotion and personal meaning may supercede any practical or principled motives for collecting. Walter Benjamin wrote an ardent defense of the book collector’s passion in his essay “Unpacking My Library”, where he speaks of the archive’s “mysterious relationship to ownership”.16 This relationship, which he calls “the most intimate… that one can have with objects”, emphasizes something other than the “functional, utilitarian value” of the collected material. His essay expresses the love and awe which the individual brings to the archive, which elevates the archive’s purpose beyond the level of dead matter and even above the functional level. Each mass-produced book becomes an individual creature in the hands of the loving collector, especially when he is conscious of the item’s own history and character. “Even though public collections may be… more useful academically than private collections,” he writes, “the objects get their due only in the latter.” Benjamin is speaking of the transcendental value of an object for an individual owner, but he also indicates how critical the collector’s care for materials is to the preservation of material records and to the maintenance of an archive’s integral character.

Motives for keeping archives may vary between sentimental, practical, and ethical reasons; nevertheless a number of universalized analyses of the archivist’s impulse have been offered. Alain Resnais’ reflective documentary on the Bibliothéque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde, begins with the claim that man accumulates memory aides because of his own short memory, and that he in turn becomes overwhelmed with the amount of these texts which surround him; therefore the archive is built as a “fortress” to protect him from the oppression of his own memories.17 In his book Archive Fever, Derrida argues from Freudian psychoanalytic theory that the need to build and keep archives is a product of the repetition compulsion (also described as the “death drive”); in other words the impulse to create records is closely bound to the impulse to destroy or erase memory.18

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Archives have traditionally been repositories of physical documents and collectible items. Not only books and papers but films, microfilms, videos, medals, coins, stamps, artworks, and many other objects are often said to be archived. Today it is increasingly common to speak of “digital archives” where data is stored on magnetic media, CDs, DVDs, flash storage, or other similar formats. For virtually every lasting medium there is a form of archive. In many cases digital archiving is used as a means to extend the life of fragile paper media. The problem of preservation thus shifts from protection against theft and invasive elements toward protection against erasure or accidental overwrite. In both print and digital archives there is concern about deterioration of data. Preservation solutions for digital media revolve around frequent back-up and multiple-site storage.

In his short work of fantastical fiction “The Library of Babel”, Jorge Luis Borges conceives of the Universe itself as an infinite library.19 This reflexive description of the world as an archive of itself is not to be taken literally, but conjures reflections on the nature and possibilities of archives. Imagining all matter as a storage medium for data and information points to the extensibility of the concept of the “archive” in much the same way that the concept of “media” is vastly extensible.

Daniel Kieckhefer


1 Bradsher, p.4

2 Derrida p.1

3 Oxford English Dictionary

4 ibid.

5 Bradsher, p.3


7 Derrida, p.34

8 Hodson, p.4

9 Karim, pp.1-2

10 Bradsher, p.4

11 Jenkinson, p.2

12 OED

13 Derrida p.7

14 Benjamin p.60

15 Toute la mémoire du monde

16 Benjamin, p.60

17 Toute la mémoire du monde

18 Derrida, p.11

19 Borges, Library of Babel, p.19


Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library.” In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” In Ficciones. Madrid: Alianza, 1997.

Bradsher, James Gregory. Managing Archives and Archival Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever : A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Hodson, John Howard. The Administration of Archives. 1st ed. Oxford ; New York: Pergamon Press, 1972.

Jenkinson, Hilary. A Manual of Archive Administration. A reissue of the rev. 2d : ed. London: P. Lund, Humphries, 1965.

Karim, Khondkar Mahbubul. Archives Administration. Dhaka: Books & Services International, 1985.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2007.

Renais, Alain (director). Toute la mémoire du monde, 1956 (DVD). London : BFI Video, 2006.