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What are archives and records?

Stack of registers from PRONI achives Volume from the PRONI archives Microfilm reel

What are archives?

Private organisations, government organisations, families and individuals create and acquire documents in the course of their business or personal activities all the time.  Archives are those documents which no longer have an everyday use, yet have been kept because of their historical value.
People write letters, keep diaries and journals, take photographs, keep a record of money they receive and spend, transfer rights to property, draw up maps and building plans and write wills.  These are the kind of documents that could make up an archive and can be of any age.
They have usually been preserved because people wanted to refer back to them, just as you would refer back to an old school report or to your expenditure last month.
Many archives will have been transferred to an archive organisation like PRONI for long term preservation. In essence they are the ‘community memory’ - a unique and irreplaceable source of information about the past extending over many centuries.  Without archives there would be no real sense of history.
Archives are what we call 'primary evidence' - the raw material used by all kinds of researchers to find out about the past (as opposed to ‘secondary evidence’ which refers to books that may have been written using the information found in the archives).
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Who creates archives?

Archives are created by many different groups, for example:
  • families
  • individuals
  • businesses and industry
  • churches
  • schools
  • charities
  • government departments
  • councils
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What do archives consist of?

Most documents are written on either paper or parchment (which is made from the skin of animals).  However, they may also be in electronic format.  For example, e-mails and word-processed documents on your computer are just as much part of an archive today as paper documents are.
Archives can come in many different formats:
Archive Types Archive Types
(a folder containing lots of pages with writing
either hand written or in type)
Cine film Cine films
Volumes Volumes
(sometimes with decorative bindings and gold
Letter from the PRONI archives Individual documents
(such as letters)

Photograph of a group of creamery workers Photographs

Tape casette Tapes Map Maps
Microfilm Microfilms Plan Plans
Email Emails Electronic document Electronic documents
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What is the difference between archives and records?

Archives are sometimes referred to as ‘records’ but the latter is more accurately used to describe documents that are still in current use. They have not usually been selected for permanent preservation or transferred to an archive organisation.
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Why do we keep archives?

To learn about the past

If you want to write a history book, find out about something that happened in the past or about a character in history, then you would have to look at the archives, analyse the evidence and decide what the evidence is telling you.

Since historians can't always question the witnesses who lived at the time, archives often provide the only source of evidence which can be used to inform us about the past.

To help us understand who we are and how we came to be the way we are – both as a community and as individuals.

Without knowing what has shaped our community, our country and us as individuals, we have a lesser sense of identity.

Without a documented heritage in the form of archives, our knowledge of communities, families and the built environment would be the poorer.

For evidential reasons

Archives have long been kept as evidence, to be used in a court of law if necessary, as proof of rights and entitlements.

For example:
  • wills are kept as proof of inheritance
  • title deeds as proof of ownership of land or of mineral rights
  • registers of births, marriages and deaths are kept as evidence of our identity and are needed for a whole range of purposes from passports to pensions
  • maps and plans might be used to identify contaminated land or old mines that could cause building subsidence.

For education and learning

Archives can also provide a stimulating and exciting learning environment - for schools, universities and for the lifelong learner.   They help to enrich and enhance teaching at all levels.

For personal reasons that affect individuals’ lives today

Access to archives is often needed for personal reasons, for example, if one is trying to establish the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one or for tracing missing members of a family.

Contributes to accountable government

Citizens have a general right of access to information about the activities carried out by government organisations acting on their behalf.  Government records whether of central government, local government or of other public bodies are vital for democratic accountability.  Without archives that document the decisions of government and how those decisions were made, there could be no public scrutiny of government activities.
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