Thursday, January 15, 2009

Understanding Archives and Manuscripts: Chapter 1 Summary

Understanding Archives & Manuscripts

The Society of American Archivists published the Archival Fundamentals series, which outlines essential archival concepts in an engaging, informative way. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts by Richard J. Cox and James M. O’Toole is the first in the series.

The first chapter discusses motives for creating records. Understanding these motives help place records in context, so archival functions of appraisal, arrangement, and description may be carried out. Motives include:

Economic: Records document how money is acquired, managed, and spent.

Legal: Records document the protection of rights, proof of ownership, etc.

Instrumental: Records serve specific functions, such as a blueprint assisting in construction.

Personal: Records document life events and memories, such as letters and diaries.

Social: Collective activities produce documents such as membership rosters and meeting minutes.

Symbolic: Records display cultural values. A diploma, for example, is more symbolic than practical.

O’Toole and Cox also discuss the characteristics of contemporary records:

Abundance: This means both ease of creation and ease of duplication. This is where More Product, Less Process comes into play.

Collective: Along with abundance is the emphasis on records and papers in the aggregate. Appraisal, arrangement, description, and even preservation and reference focus on groups of materials, not individual items.

Decentralized: Archivists no longer collect only the papers and records of the elite. History demands a more democratic approach to archival acquisition and preservation. But changes in record keeping practices and technology have altered how records are created and stored. The days of secretaries typing the letters and central storage files are over. People create their own documents and keep them on their own computers.

Interrelated: Government, corporate, and non-profit organizations are connected and interrelated. Archivists need to work with their colleagues as the records of any organization are likely to be spread among repositories.

Social Nature: The decentralized and interrelated nature of records creation and communication have emphasized the role they play in communication among people. O’Toole and Cox remind archivists to pay heed to the ways in which records represent social interaction and community building.

Shifting Usefulness: Records are created by individuals and organizations in the course of doing day-to-day business. They are used for the function for which they were created for a period of time. At some point they are no longer needed for that initial function, and archivists must decide if the records have enduring value for other reasons and use.

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