Archives Library Information Center (ALIC)

Archives and Records Management Resources

by Maygene F. Daniels (1984)
Note on Web Version

The following glossary, developed by the then National Archives and Records Service in 1984 for A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice, is provided on this website as an aid to persons unfamiliar with common archival terms. These definitions are not legally binding and do not represent NARA policy. The updated and more comprehensive A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers, compiled by Lewis J. Bellardo and Lynn Lady Bellardo, was published in 1992 and may be purchased from the Society of American Archivists.

Archival terminology is a flexible group of common words that have acquired specialized meanings for archivists. Since World War II, archivists worldwide have devoted considerable attention to the definition of these words. In 1964, an international lexicon of archival terminology was published.(1) This dictionary in 6 languages, the work of a committee of the International Council on Archives, provides a basis for international comparison of archival terms.

The Society of American Archivists published its own glossary of archival terms in 1974 after several years of debate, drafting, and review.(2) Definitions in the SAA glossary have been widely accepted as the basis for discussion of archival terminology in North America and have been the starting point for subsequent efforts to define American archival terms. Since publication of the SAA glossary, however, many archivists have concluded that some of its definitions require revision and that additional terms should be included. Teachers of archives administration and authors of basic archival texts, consequently, have developed their own glossaries that revise, update, or expand the 1974 work. At present, no single glossary of archival terms can be considered definitive.(3)

The most frequently used archival terms are those that describe documentary materials and archival institutions. Documentary materials can be characterized as "records," "personal papers," or "artificial collections" on the basis of who created and maintained the documents and for what purpose.(4) Records are documents in any form that are made or received and maintained by an organization, whether government agency, church, business, university, or other institution. An organization's records typically might include copies of letters, memoranda, accounts, reports, photographs, and other materials produced by the organization as well as incoming letters, reports received, memoranda from other offices, and other documents maintained in the organization's files.

In contrast to records, personal papers are created or received and maintained by an individual or family in the process of living. Diaries, news clippings, personal financial records, photographs, correspondence received, and copies of letters written and sent by the individual or family are among the materials typically found in personal papers.

Traditionally, records and personal papers have been considered distinct entities, each with clearly definable characteristics. In the twentieth century, the physical qualities of records and personal papers have become more alike, however, and archivists increasingly have emphasized the similarities between these materials rather than their differences.(5) In particular, today's archivists recognize that both records and personal papers are bodies of interrelated materials that have been brought together because of their function or use. Archivists respect and seek to maintain the established relationships between individual items in groups of records and in personal papers.(6)

Artificial collections are fundamentally different both from records and from personal papers. Instead of being natural accumulations, artificial collections are composed of individual items purposefully assembled from a variety of sources. Because artificial collections comprise documents from many sources, archivists may elect to change established relationships in order to improve access or control.

Archival institutions can be termed either "archives" or "manuscript repositories" depending on the types of documentary material they contain and how it is acquired. "Archives" traditionally have been those institutions responsible for the long-term care of the historical records of the organization or institution of which they are a part.(7) Many archives are public institutions responsible for the records of continuing value of a government or governmental body. The National Archives of the United States and the Public Archives of Canada are examples of public archives at the national level. Public archives also may be found at every other level of government, including state or province, county, and municipal levels. Nonpublic or nongovernmental archives care for the records of any other institution or organization of which they are a part. Church archives, for example, administer the historical records of a religious denomination or congregation. University archives are responsible for records of the university's administration. Archives acquire historical material through the action of law or through internal institutional regulation or policy.

"Manuscript repositories" are archival institutions primarily responsible for personal papers, artificial collections, and records of other organizations. Manuscript repositories purchase or seek donations of materials to which they have no necessary right. They therefore must document the transfer of materials by deed of gift or by other legal contract.

The distinctions between archives and manuscript repositories can be precisely stated, yet few archival institutions are simply "archives" or "manuscript repositories." Most archives hold some personal papers or records of other organizations. Even the National Archives of the United States is responsible for a small group of donated personal papers and nongovernment records. Similarly, many manuscript repositories serve as the archives of their own institutions. In recognition of this, the term "archives" gradually has acquired broader meaning for some archivists and is used by them in reference to any archival institution. This trend has been accelerated by the use of the word "archives" or "archive" in the names of some institutions that in the past might have been termed "manuscript repositories."(8)

Contemporary archival terminology provides a useful and necessary means of specialized communication within the archival profession. Its terms can be precise enough to preserve important distinctions among types of materials and archival institutions, and yet its usage also can be sufficiently flexible to reflect the changing nature of record materials and developments in the administration of archival institutions. As the archival profession grows and matures and as new technologies and records media affect the practice of archives administration, both the precision and flexibility of archival terminology will prove to be of continuing benefit to archivists.


This glossary of commonly used archival terms is based in part on and draws several definitions from "A Basic Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers," compiled by Frank B. Evans, Donald F. Harrison, and Edwin A. Thompson (The American Archivist 37 [July 1974]: 415-433). The glossary includes most important archival terms with specialized meanings. Terms that are adequately described in dictionaries; technical manuscript, records management, and preservation terms; and terms relating to automated data processing are not included.

The archival term for authority to obtain information from or to perform research in archival materials.

(v.) To transfer physical and legal custody of documentary materials to an archival institution.
(n.) Materials transferred to an archival institution in a single accessioning action.

An addition to an accession.

The process of identifying and acquiring, by donation or purchase, historical materials from sources outside the archival institution.

The value of records for the ongoing business of the agency of records creation or its successor in function.

The process of determining whether documentary materials have sufficient value to warrant acquisition by an archival institution.

An institution holding legal and physical custody of noncurrent documentary materials determined to have permanent or continuing value. Archives and manuscript repositories are archival institutions.

The value of documentary materials for continuing preservation in an archival institution.

(1) The noncurrent records of an organization or institution preserved because of their continuing value.
(2) The agency responsible for selecting, preserving, and making available records determined to have permanent or continuing value.
(3) The building in which an archival institution is located.

The professional management of an archival institution through application of archival principles and techniques.

The professional staff member within an archival institution responsible for any aspect of the selection, preservation, or use of archival materials.

The archival process of organizing documentary materials in accordance with archival principles.

A policy established by an archival institution concerning subject areas, time periods, and formats of materials to seek for donation or purchase.

(1) An artificial accumulation of materials devoted to a single theme, person, event, or type of document acquired from a variety of sources.
(2) In a manuscript repository, a body of historical materials relating to an individual, family, or organization.

The process of building an institution's holdings of historical materials through acquisition activities.

(1) In contemporary U.S. usage, the archival principle that to guarantee archival integrity, archival materials should either be retained by the creating organization or transferred directly to an archival institution.
(2) In British usage, the principle that noncurrent records must be retained by the creating organization or its successor in function to be considered archival.

A standard measure of the quantity of archival materials on the basis of the volume of space they occupy.

A legal document accomplishing donation of documentary materials to an archival institution through transfer of title.

A legal document providing for deposit of historical materials in physical custody of an archival institution while legal title to the materials is retained by the donor.

The process of establishing intellectual control over holdings of an archival institution through preparation of finding aids.

The final action that puts into effect the results of an appraisal decision for a series of records. Transfer to an archival institution, transfer to a records center, and destruction are among possible dispositions.

Instructions governing retention and disposition of current and noncurrent recurring records series of an organization or agency. Also called a RECORDS CONTROL SCHEDULE.

Recorded information regardless of form or medium with three basic elements: base, impression, and message.

Historical materials transferred to an archival institution through a donor's gift rather than in accordance with law or regulation.

The value of records or papers as documentation of the operations and activities of the records-creating organization, institution, or individual.

The activity of identifying, negotiating for, and securing historical materials for an archival institution.

A description from any source that provides information about the contents and nature of documentary materials.

All documentary materials in the custody of an archival institution including both accessioned and deposited materials.

The value of records or papers for information they contain on persons, places, subjects, and things other than the operation of the organization that created them or the activities of the individual or family that created them.

The archival term for those qualities and characteristics of permanently valuable records that make the records in their original physical form the only archivally acceptable form of the records.

Ownership of title to documentary materials.

The concept that records pass through a continuum of identifiable phases from the point of their creation, through their active maintenance and use, to their final disposition by destruction or transfer to an archival institution or records center.

A standard measure of the quantity of archival materials on the basis of shelf space occupied or the length of drawers in vertical files or the thickness of horizontally filed materials.

Records created for processing by a computer.

A handwritten or typed document, including a letterpress or carbon copy, or any document annotated in handwriting or typescript.


The professional staff member within a manuscript repository responsible for any aspect of the selection, preservation, or use of documentary materials.

An archival institution primarily responsible for personal papers.

Material that is not record in character because it comprises solely library or other reference items, because it duplicates records and provides no additional evidence or information, or because its qualities are nondocumentary.

The archival principle that records should be maintained in the order in which they were placed by the organization, individual, or family that created them.

A natural accumulation of documents created or accumulated by an individual or family belonging to him or her and subject to his or her disposition. Also referred to as MANUSCRIPTS.

The values of records for the activities for which they were created or received.

All steps taken in an archival repository to prepare documentary materials for access and reference use.

(1) The archival principle that records created or received by one recordskeeping unit should not be intermixed with those of any other.
(2) Information on the chain of ownership and custody of particular records.

The copy of a document which is designated for official retention in files of the administrative unit that is principally responsible for production, implementation, or dissemination of the document.

A body of organizationally related records established on the basis of provenance with particular regard for the complexity and volume of the records and the administrative history of the record-creating institution or organization.

All recorded information, regardless of media or characteristics, made or received and maintained by an organization or institution. [The Federal Records Act definition of "records" can be found at: 44 USC Sec. 3301.]

A records storage facility established to provide efficient storage of inactive records. Legal title to records deposited in a records center is retained by the originating agency.

The profession concerned with achieving economy and efficiency in the creation, use, and maintenance of current records.

Nonaccessioned items maintained by an archival institution solely for reference use.

The archival function of providing information about or from holdings of an archival institution, making holdings available to researchers, and providing copies, reproductions, or loans of holdings.


The process of surveying documentary materials in an archival institution to determine whether the materials may be open for access by researchers or must be restricted in accordance with law, a donor's requirements, or an institution's regulations.


(v.) To establish retention periods for current records and provide for their proper disposition at the end of active use.

The values of records to users other than the agency of record creation or its successors.

A body of file units or documents arranged in accordance with a unified filing system or maintained by the records creator as a unit because of some relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, or use.

A body of related records within a record group, usually consisting of the records of a primary subordinate administrative unit or of records series related chronologically, functionally, or by subject.

Endnotes for "Introduction"

1. Elsevier's Lexicon of Archive Terminology. Compiled in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch by a committee of the International Council on Archives. New York: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1964.Return to text.

2. "A Basic Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers," compiled by Frank B. Evans, Donald F. Harrison, and Edwin A. Thompson. Edited by William L. Rofes. The American Archivist 37 (July 1974): 415-433.Return to text.

3. The glossary included in this Reader was developed for the Modern Archives Institute. It is included here to provide assistance for readers who are unfamiliar with archival terminology.Return to text.

4. Documentary materials also may be characterized on the basis of their various physical forms: textual, audiovisual, machine-readable, cartographic, printed and others. The term "manuscript" is used for any handwritten or typed document, including press or carbon copy, or any document annotated in handwriting or typescript. In common usage, the term "manuscripts" also often is used as a synonym for "personal papers."Return to text.

5. The term "records" now is even used occasionally as a general term for both records and personal papers. The Presidential Records Act of 1980 codified this usage by employing the term "personal records" to describe strictly personal and private or political papers of the President.Return to text.

6. Although some groups of personal papers and, less frequently, some series of records may have no perceptible order, if any order does exist it is likely to be meaningful and archivists seek to protect it. If no internal order is perceptible, the archivist's concern for protecting established relationships does not come into play.Return to text.

7. Records in an archival institution also are called "archives." A building in which an archival institution is located also is often referred to as an "archives." "Archives" is a collective noun.Return to text.

8. The Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art and the Dada Archive of the University of Iowa are both examples of this phenomenon.Return to text.

Note: This web version was prepared in 1999, based on:
Maygene F. Daniels, Introduction to Archival Terminology, Published in A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice (National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1984): 336-342.
This version may differ from the printed version.

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