What Exactly Are the Archives and Why Are They Important?

Whether you realize it or not, archives impact everyone. At the root of all our collective content creation and consumption — from literature, film and research to the hottest videos, photographs and trends — we will always find archival materials and the archivists who care deeply about their conservation. 

But what exactly are archives?  

Correspondence from Thomas Wilson to Joseph Leidy, 1846–1864, Thomas Bellerby Wilson Papers, Coll 169. Jessica Lydon/ANS

“The term is actually a bit complicated!” laughs the Academy’s own Brooke Dolan Archivist, Jessica Lydon. She explains the word archives can be used to describe the organization, the space and the records themselves that an institution like the Academy collects.  

As a place, archives can be a physical environment, a digital one or even both. It is the space where we store, catalog and interact with materials of enduring value, selected purposefully to be preserved for the long term and maintained in special environments.  

The Academy is home to a physical Archives, where we house particularly unique materials that are not only related to the history of the institution, but also the many connected communities, people, places and specimens that are stored in our various collections.  

On the other hand, as records, archives are rare, unique sources of information or first-hand accounts. While libraries circulate copies of published works that may be found in other locations, archives are often one of a kind.

These materials can be objects, handwritten works and journals, paintings and sketches, field notes and many other types of materials that are completely irreplaceable. They are often single creations, meaning simply, if you lose it or it becomes destroyed, the material cannot be duplicated. 

Verreaux shipping manifest for Gould collection, 1847, Ornithology Department Records, Coll 54. Jessica Lydon/ANS

“I use our Archives every day,” says Nate Rice, collection manager of ornithology. “It’s hard for me to think about our biological collections without the Archives, the two are completely intertwined.”  

He explains that while our biological collections are used by our scientists and global researchers to address all manner of environmental and evolutionary questions, it is our archival collections that provide the necessary context and cultural links to our specimens and science. Materials from the Archives capture the daily work and progress of field biologists and interested amateurs that contain valuable information about the ecologies, environments and locations where their collections were made, giving a glimpse into many different places, times and ideas. 

Digitally speaking, scans of our early archival specimen ledgers are used to verify and oftentimes correct information that is accessible to the public through our databases. The field catalogs of collectors oftentimes contain ancillary information — for example, weather conditions and habitat types — that are increasingly being added to our biological specimen records.

And our incredibly dense and detailed collection of archived correspondence about the collections and its associated research with our specimens provides amazing historical perspectives on the many ways our materials have been used over the last several centuries — as well as how they can inform our understandings of the future of our planet to help build it in more equitable and sustainable ways. 

“There is no preservation without access,” Lydon says enthusiastically. She reminds us that the core tenant or purpose of any archives is to preserve these materials simply for others to use. And archivists certainly are not stewards or gatekeepers to this incredibly important historical information. Instead, they are bridge builders, connecting not only the past with the present and future, but also with diverse audiences — artists, creators, scientists, historians and of course, the public.  

This is important to not only help these historical stories and voices flourish, but also to help enrich and work together with our current local and global communities.  

“The more we learn about our histories, the better we can shape our futures.” 

Your donations can help support further research in our Library & Archives! And be sure to celebrate your love of archives during Archives Month with events all across the the city.

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