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Entrance to the "Archival Chambers" in Ashurbanipal's palace
Drawing of an archive cabinet, 16th century

An archive ( Latin archivum 'file cabinet'; from ancient Greek ἀρχεῖον archeíon 'office building') is an institution or organizational unit in which archival material is kept, made usable and preserved (archiving) for an unlimited period of time within the scope of the archive's responsibility or the respective focus of the collection.


The term can also mean buildings or premises in which an archive or archive material is housed (storage room ) . There are archives worldwide and in almost all cultures and areas of life. Archives were created with the first written records and were used from the beginning to secure important information, especially for long-term proof of property rights or contractual documents.

Archives appear in both public (e.g. states, municipalities) and private sponsorship (e.g. companies, associations, families). The public archives work on the basis of archive laws , which declare archiving and the associated fields of work to be a public duty . Since more and more documents only exist in digital form, digital archiving is gaining in importance.

Together with other memory institutions such as libraries , documentation centers or museums , archives form the particularly sensitive cultural and legal-administrative memory of a state, municipality or region. [1] What is specific to archives is that the archived material is often a primary source and in some cases has only been handed down once. Archives are therefore an important object of cultural property protection .

archival material

Card archive of the former East Franconian Dictionary 2006 office in Bayreuth

The information archived in the archives and the associated information carriers are summarized under the term archival material or archival material [2] . A single unit of archival material is also called an archival (neuter, plural archival ).

Archival material is that part of documents that is no longer required by bodies that keep records, such as authorities , companies , associations , families or private individuals for the current task and has been assessed by the responsible archive as being to be kept indefinitely ( archival assessment ). These types of documents have the characteristic that they contain the tasks (both compulsory and voluntary) and the activitiesauthentically documented by the respective document-keeping office (e.g. banking supervision of the Federal Ministry of Finance, water supply of a municipality, product design in the car company, scientific data of a research institute, diary or correspondence of a private person).

The information can be handed down on different carriers , for example paper -bound or electronic factual files , databases or other digital systems, individual documents , maps and plans, photos , films or sound recordings .

Extensive databases and tools such as finding aids and directories are created with the content development of the information contained in the archive material . These are used for usage and for evaluation and are now mainly made accessible via the Internet. Archival material usually consists of unique items that, as primary sources, are of outstanding importance for historical research, but also serve as carriers of authentic evidence or information for institutions or the public.

Offices that keep records (registration creators) offer their (official) records to the responsible archive on a mandatory or voluntary basis – depending on the legal background – if the documents are no longer required for the current task. Archives evaluate whether the written material can be archived or destroyed. The part of the documents that is not yet offered to archives is also referred to as register material , especially in authorities and companies. There are significant legal differences between archive material and registered material, since archive material is no longer required for day-to-day tasks. However, there are also similarities, which are illustrated by the model of the life cycle of documents .

The pre-archival structure and handling of written material as well as the process and file formation is regulated by the records management of the administration of the file-keeping office (registration creator). Especially in the field of file creation and file organization, there has been an increasing de-professionalization for many yearsvisible in advance of the work. Unauthorized cassation or improper storage of official documents (see mold) can lead to gaps in the transmission of important information having to be identified during archiving. Due to the specified task profile and very limited human resources, archives are not able to take over the basic work task of organizing files in administrations. The substantive transmissions in the archival material thus depend heavily on the state of the respective records management (organization of file management, file formation, file plan). Archives and thus the archivists are dependent on the fact that the file management of the respective filing director is reliable, regular and complete.

Extension of the archive concept

Archive often simply stands for a place where current information is no longer kept, for example many websites have a corresponding archive area. Archive is not a firmly defined or even protected term. Very different institutions may call themselves archives , although it would often be more appropriate to call them old registers, libraries, museums or documentation centers.

The so-called archiving in the IT area leads to a dilution of the actual archive term. Many companies that offer or use digital filing systems speak of archiving when it comes to storing data in the system ( electronic archiving ). Other memory organizations such as libraries speak of long-term archiving when the long-term preservation of their digital information is meant ( digital archive ). Long-term archiving is a pleonasm to be avoided, since archive already means long-term storage, actually even permanent storage. In the IT sector, the term archive is often not even appropriate when it is only a question of long-term storage, often even limited in time in accordance with data protection laws, but not of possibly even illegal permanent storage. The use of the term archive in the IT industry actually means "long-term storage", but has nevertheless become established with the shift in meaning described. For example, systems for electronic "archiving" or for data backup (see, for example, the Tarfile format) are referred to as archives, although today the access times from the point of view of human work hardly differ from those in the running system of the data carrier. In the 20th century, it was common practice to keep long-term electronic storage data in locked safes. Here it would be the task of linguistics to take countermeasures through education in order to achieve correct use of the term in the IT world again.

In postmodern cultural studies , following Michel Foucault , archive is used as a generic term for storage of information and knowledge, e.g. Libraries are used, for example, whereby for Foucault the term archive also refers to “the general system of formation and transformation of statements” [3] far beyond a place of preservation . The term here includes all conditions under which statements and, as a result, knowledge can arise.

The Wikileaks platform , which emerged outside of any state institution, has been seen as a “radical democratization of the archive”. [4]

Types of archives and carriers of archives

In the case of the archives in Germany and the German-speaking neighboring countries, a strong fragmentation and different orientations of the individual institutions are striking. In Germany, the VdA has divided 8 different archive categories, which in turn contain a wide range of archives.

The most important carriers , operators or owners of archives are public and semi-public institutions. In addition, archives are also maintained by large companies, organizations and private individuals. The formation of the transmission of the responsible archive also depends on the archive medium. [5] Public archives generally include national archives , state archives , municipal archives , chamber archives, and school and university archives . These archives fulfill a legal mandate. [6]The archives of institutions and associations include archives of religious communities (at the level of countries, monasteries and parishes and separated by denomination), association archives, foundation archives of the parties, trade union and employer association archives, guild archives and others.

In the field of private archives there are, for example, company archives and archives of private individuals or families, which are usually not accessible to outsiders. An example of a family archive is the house archive of the Prussian royal family, which ruled until 1918, at Hohenzollern Castle . [7] There are also archives in newspaper and magazine publishers. [8] The Süddeutsche Zeitung is a suitable example of the archive of a large newspaper publisher . Since it was founded in 1945, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) has had a press archive that documents the texts of its own editors and numerous national and international publications and makes them available for research purposes on request.

The wide range of the archive landscape can now be easily understood in the more than 2600 archives in Germany listed in Archivportal-D .


The selection and thus the assessment of the written material of a filing designer is one of the most important tasks of an archive. The archivist decides which information is worthy of being archived and thus kept permanently and which is to be discarded, i.e. H. be destroyed. The evaluation of records is an essential task, as archiving all of a filing maker's documents would result in high costs for storage and preservation. Furthermore, the professional selection of the information to be archived enables a more targeted research and use of the archived material and the storage of redundant information is avoided. Despite falling storage costs, this also applies to genuinely digital documents. The necessary regular migrations to current file formats make the long-term storage of digital archive materials expensive.

As a rule, only a few percent of the documents offered are archived. The evaluation is based on evaluation criteria that should be worked out beforehand, must be constantly updated and are based on an objective basis. A distinction is made between formal and content-related criteria. [9] The evaluation decisions are to be logged in order to ensure their traceability and transparency. Evaluation models are increasingly being used in the archives of the federal states and the federal government, which make binding statements for various administrative branches and authorities about the archival value of the documents that accumulate there. [9] Documentation profiles can be found in municipal archivesever more widespread. This is a holistic approach to the formation of tradition for official and non-official documents of the local environment of an archive district (responsibility of the archive).


The indexing (the arrangement and description of the archival material) takes place in specialist archives according to standardized procedures [10] and usually according to the principle of provenance .

In the 19th century, the principle of pertinence was widespread, which organized the documents according to subject terms (pertinences) regardless of their context of origin and origin (provenance).

A disadvantage resulted from the fact that a document taken out of context has significantly less meaningfulness than a document that was left in the context in which it was created. Indexing according to the pertinence principle is used today primarily in the context of indexing collections and estates.

Based on the Anglo-American area and the already existing uniform OVG , archives are working on common standards such as Encoded Archival Context and Encoded Archival Description . Since archives and libraries are much closer together in the USA than in German-speaking countries, the cooperation in the field of standardization leads to increased cooperation between archives and libraries. However, adapting bibliographic formats to archival needs has not proven successful. The International Council on Archives (ICA/CIA) [11] adopted ISAD(G) in 2000as an application standard for the description of archival material (General International Standard Archival Description), or 2004 ISAAR(CPF) (International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families).

This takes into account the independence of archival working methods. The individualization of individual pieces is counteracted and the importance of the context of origin and purpose of origin articulated in the principle of provenance is taken into account. The standardization improves the working methods, which are practice-oriented and thus become the basis for the development of national standards.

The aim is that in the future the user will be able to research networked archive databases in the search tools of the archives according to uniform standards worldwide.


Tape Library (interior view)

Since archives are intended to secure the predominantly written cultural assets entrusted to them permanently or at least for a longer period of time, the problem of preservation arises . For example, one problem is archiving paper documents that are not wood-free or contain harmful additives such as glue and pigments. While documents on old hemp paper can be stored very permanently for centuries, European documents from the 19th century often deteriorate due to acid corrosion . Restoration is often only possible through mass deacidification and subsequent stabilization processes, such as the paper splitting process.[12] [13] In addition, the preservation of different media formats, such as photographs, tapes or films, represents a major challenge, which must be carried out by appropriately trained restorers in an interdisciplinary manner.

The long-term archiving of digital information poses particular problems , since the durability of the data carriers currently in use is very limited. For example, parts of the data from the Apollo program are no longer readable today because the computers , operating systems and programs from back then are no longer available or the data were not transferred to newer systems.

In many countries, the cultural assets stored in archives are threatened by natural disasters , wars or other emergencies, and in the tropics also by the constant high humidity and paper- eating insects . [14] For this reason, there is also a strong bundling of existing resources in archives as well as the networking of existing specialist competencies in order to prevent loss or damage or to keep damage as low as possible. According to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property from 1954 and its 2nd Protocol from 1999, the international partner for archives is the organization Blue Shield International. Nationally and internationally, for legal reasons, there is a lot of cooperation between archives and local Blue Shield organizations to ensure the long-term preservation of the holdings of cultural property storage facilities . [15] [16] [17] This also applies to the collection of archives or other cultural assets to be protected, the creation of “no-strike lists”, the linking of civilian and military structures and the training of local military personnel in the protection of cultural assets. [18]Basically, in the case of catastrophes with regard to archives and other carriers of cultural property, local alliances ideally mediated or organized by Blue Shield and set up as needed, together with help from accessible third countries, should achieve rapid damage limitation. [19]


Uses as well as the evaluation and public relations work of archive material come at the end of the evaluation and development processes of the information to be kept permanently. Use of the information carrier (such as files, plans or photos) is subject to different legal norms. In particular, the development of data protection was the engine for archival legislation . [20]Respect for sensitive personal data plays a major role in public archives worldwide. For example, personal files can usually only be used some time after the death of the person concerned (10 to 30 years in Germany). If the time of death is not known, a period from birth (usually 90 to 100 years) is set. With the advent of freedom of information laws, the formerly dominant fears that users could harm the administration through premature inspection of government files play an increasingly minor role. In Germany, federal and state documents are subject to a standard blocking period of 30 years after the file has been closed.


The use of the holdings of a public archive for evaluation for personal, legal or scientific purposes is possible for everyone after approval of a user application made for this purpose. A written request also counts as use in the legal sense. As the original creator of the registry , the administration maintaining the archive is sometimes the main user of the official archive material in order to obtain important information quickly even after the original task has been completed or to obtain certainty on specific legal issues even years later. The use and viewing of public and private archives for the purpose of researching, securing and evaluating sources is one of the basic professional tasks of historians, freelance authors, publicists, scientists and private researchers (such as local researchers ).

An archive user conducts genealogical research in registry office books.

Due to the numerous registers of civil status , church registers and archived residents ' registration files , municipal archives are a popular starting point for genealogists and private individuals who are looking for information about their ancestors. Lawyers or companies also contact archives to clarify inheritance disputes and other legal procedures in order to obtain certified certificates or other documents to protect their clients' rights.

As part of archive education, school classes can take advantage of the free accessibility of the archives, for example for history lessons, and receive technical support from the archive staff. In addition, at the time when high school students are writing their theses, the archives notice an annual accumulation of inquiries from students looking for original sources in the collections.

Archive Laws

In Germany there are various laws at federal or state level that regulate the accessibility of archive material and formulate the tasks of archives. At the municipal level, corresponding regulations are formulated in statutes within the framework of municipal self-government . The object of the archive laws with regard to the use of archives is the balancing of scientific and information freedom on the one hand and the protective rights of the persons concerned on the other. For this purpose, protection periodsand other usage restrictions to protect the archive material. Compliance with the applicable Archives Act obliges the archives, for example, to refuse use if there is reason to believe that the well-being of the Federal Republic of Germany or one of its countries would be endangered, or if the state of preservation of the archives does not permit use. [21]


Since archive material is unique as a primary source, it must be protected from damage through improper use and excessive stress. In the event of intentional damage to the archive material, the user's permission to use it may be withdrawn. To prevent vandalism, use is only permitted on site in special user rooms. Gloves must be worn by the user with very fragile archival documents, photographs, negatives and sometimes also with drawings to prevent damage from sweat. The use of ballpoint pens can be prohibited in individual cases. Many archives used to make microfilmsto allow archive users to view books and documents via microfilm readers. In this way, the originals were preserved and protected from improper use. Even today, microfilms are still a common conversion process alongside extensive digitization measures in the archives. [22] (see also retroconversion )

The inhalation of dust particles and mold spores can be associated with the use of older archive material in particular. Sensitive people could therefore have an allergic reaction in individual cases. Since it is not possible to completely avoid dust and mold spores contaminating archive material, it is advisable to protect yourself adequately when using it.

Literature for archive use

  • Norbert Reimann (Hrsg.): Practical archiving, a guide for specialists in media and information services, specializing in archives . Munster 2004
  • Angelika Menne-Haritz : Key terms in archival terminology, teaching materials for the subject of archival science . 2nd, revised Edition, Marburg 1999

Virtual Archives

There are numerous archive portals on the Internet . They offer bundled information about archives and/or the possibility of researching the holdings of several archives at the same time . Depending on which and how many archives can be accessed from there, there are web portals that are narrower thematically and further (more universal) ones.

The work of Google Books has initiated a lot since 2004. At that time there were only a few pilot projects for the digitization of finding aids and archive material in order to make both available for use on the Internet. The idea of ​​Open Access for archival material was hardly widespread at the time. In 2004, Google announced a goal of scanning 15 million books by 2015 . Google also cooperates with the non-profit project Internet Archive. Because of its approach – starting digitization on a large scale without first clarifying or contractually regulating the copyright situation of the copied works – Google Books met with some considerable resistance, which also led to legal disputes. Google cooperates with numerous particularly large and old libraries as well as many university libraries :

Digitization costs continue to fall and continue to favor the process to this day.

The digitization of analog archive material – apart from the finding aids – is also advocated and – mostly in individual projects – promoted. The resulting digital copies are made available for use on the WWW . The digitization of entire and complete files and series of files continues to pose a major problem, since the content must always be displayed in the context of its origin (provenance, file, process, document). This therefore requires excellent records management by the administrations and registry designers (see above). In addition, a large number of rights (personal rights, copyrights, protection of secrets) that do not play a role in the printed secondary literature must be observed.

The ICARUS Alliance (International Center for Archival Research) [24] , founded in 2008, in which 250 institutions cooperate , is an international network for the digitization of archival material .

Archive organizations and job profile

German commemorative stamp for the International Archives Congress, designed by Elisabeth von Janota-Bzowski , 1984

The professional associations of archivists (in Germany: VdA , in Switzerland VSA , in Austria VÖA ) and associations of archives as well as archival journals (in Germany the first to be mentioned are Der Archivar and the Archivalische Zeitschrift , in which the Switzerland Arbido , in Austria Scrinium ).

The Association of German Archivists (VdA) provides information on the current job description and on the subject-specific training and further education of archivists in today's information society . Further information can be found in the archive blog of the VdA. The Day of the Archives offers opportunities to find out about the job profile on site.

archive lists

See also

Portal: Archiving  – Overview of Wikipedia content on the subject of archiving


web links

Commons : Archives  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Archive  - explanations of meaning, word origin, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: archive  – explanations of meaning, word origin, synonyms, translations
Wikisource: Archiving  - sources and full texts


  1. FH Potsdam from January 14, 2020, Libraries, archives and museums are guarantors of democracy in the digital age
  2. Stadtarchiv Potsdam: "Viewing of the archivaries is only possible in the user room"
  3. Quoted from Michel Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge , 1969, p. 188.
  4. Johannes Thumfart: Wikileaks: The explosive power of the archives. In: zeit.de. January 19, 2011, retrieved March 22, 2022 .
  5. Archive ( Memento of June 11, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) On: History Online , University of Vienna, 2004.
  6. List of archive laws on the website of the Marburg Archive School. ( Memento of October 10, 2012 at the Internet Archive )
  7. Georg Friedrich Prince of Prussia ready for comparison. In: Daily Mirror. January 30, 2020, retrieved June 14, 2021 .
  8. Cf. Martin Burkhardt, 3. The various types and carriers of archives in Germany . In: Instructions for use for archives . On: historicum.net , 2006. Retrieved December 25, 2009.
  9. ^ a b www.archivschule.de
  10. Uniform OVG ordering and description principles of the state archive system of the GDR.
  11. ICArchives : Page d'accueil : Accueil
  12. Günter Engelhardt/Klaus Granich/Klaus Ritter: The sizing of paper . Leipzig (specialist book publisher) 1972, pp. 12-14.
  13. Otto Wurz: Paper production according to modern knowledge . Graz, Vienna (Ulrich Moser publishing house) 1951, pp. 46–65.
  14. Enrique Dussel : "El Caribe no es tierra de archivos; la humedad y el comejón dan cuenta de ellos con rapidez.” In: same (ed.): Resistencia y esperanza: historia del pueblo cristiano en América Latina y El Caribe . Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones (DEI), San José 1995, ISBN 9977-83-089-4 , p. 627.
  15. Corine Wegener/Marjan Otter, Cultural Property at War: Protecting Heritage during Armed Conflict , in: The Getty Conservation Institute, Newsletter 23.1, Spring 2008.
  16. cf. B. Hans Haider, Misuse of cultural property is punishable , in: Wiener Zeitung of June 29, 2012.
  17. Marilyn E. Phelan, Museum Law: A Guide for Officers, Directors, and Counsel , 2014, pp. 419 et seq.
  18. Aisling Irwin, A no-strike list may shield Yemen's ancient treasures from war , in Daily News, 23 January 2017.
  19. Markus Walz (ed.): Handbook Museum: History, Tasks, Perspectives , 2016, p. 238 ff.
  20. Cf. Archive Laws and Other Laws ( Memento of 16 April 2009 in the Internet Archive ). In: Marburg Archive School .
  21. Archive Act of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia § 6 - Use
  22. http://www.bundeskonferenz-kommunalarchive.de:/ Bundeskonferenz Kommunalarchive, On the use of microfilm in archival preservation (pdf, 2014)
  23. Jens Redmer: The Bavarian State Library becomes largest non-English library partner. In: Inside Google Book Search. 6 March 2007, retrieved 11 March 2007 .
  24. International Center for Archival Research
  25. Johannes Grützmacher: Review of: Ridener, John: From Polders to Postmodernism. A Concise History of Archival Theory. Duluth 2009 . In: H-Soz-u-Kult , December 23, 2009.