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About Archives and Archivists

What is an archives?
Archives hold historical records of organizations and individuals. In the case of the Seattle Municipal Archives, it is the records of City government: records created by or for City agencies and elected officials. Archives differ from libraries in that their collections do not circulate and may not be checked out. Additionally, their records are unique; a letter or photograph held by an archives may be the only one in existence. The size of a collection in the archives can range from a single item to hundreds of boxes.

What kinds of records are in an archives?
The records may be in many different formats, including documents, photographs, audio, film, maps, architectural drawings. Records reflect the everyday activities of the agency or person who created them, but may be used by researchers for an entirely different purpose than for which they were created. For example, a letter to the City Council in 1893 complaining about the noise from cows (and their bells) running loose in the City tells us about the nature of the City changing from a rural to an urban environment, even though the reason the individual wrote the letter was to get action regarding a noise problem.

What types of archives are there?
Archival repositories are diverse. They can be located in federal, state, and local governments; schools, colleges, and universities; religious institutions; businesses; hospitals; museums; labor unions; and historical societies.

What does an archivist do?
Archivists preserve and provide access to these historical records. This involves identifying and selecting permanent records due to their enduring value, then arranging those records to make them usable and housing them in acid-free materials in order to aid in their long-term preservation. Archivists often create guides to collections to provide information about the scope of the records as well as contextual information about why, how, and by whom they were created. They also provide reference services and help researchers find records that are relevant to their area of interest. Additionally, archivists create exhibits, publications, and other outreach programs to increase awareness about the records in the archives.

See the Society of American Archivists' online publication Using Archives to learn more about archives and how to use them.