What is an archive? Who are the archivists?

What is an archive? Who are the archivists?
Every single one of us is potentially the producer of an archive because we are all bearers of memory. Memories do not want to be lost, they seek the means to remain in order to become tangible objects which are able to be communicated to others and transmitted into the future.

Up until now, paper has been the main pillar of memory in Western culture. The necessity to record one’s own memories, one’s will, the relationships between individuals, the foundations of political and social life on paper, has given birth to, and continues to grow over time into a precious “physical sediment of memory”. Documents have been collected together, searching for a language always better adapted to express the relationships from which they came and the wills they wanted to accomplish.
Together with the monuments, artworks and the material objects that surround us, these documents have been passed on to us by our forebears. This is what we have inherited from the past and what we must deliver to the future.


Archives are created as deposits of documents which are characterised by the fact that each of them is intimately linked to the other by a network of relationships. Understanding the language in which the document is expressed and the relationships that tie it to the others allows us to understand the archive in its entirety and therefore find what we are seeking.


But we must not forget that like all things which express man’s activity, these archives also have a history: they have grown over time, have been preserved and transmitted, and at times they have been destroyed. Therefore they are not strange impersonal entities, amorphous and mysterious: behind each of them there is always someone.

This someone could be an individual or a family, an institution, a charity, or an association.


The creators of these papers wanted them to be conserved in order to fulfill specific purposes (governing, administering public or private property, managing an enterprise, etc.) and this someone considered the archives to be their own property. In the same way it was organized in order to answer in a functional and effective way to the activity that was being carried out. At times the archives were intentionally kept secret, or were otherwise not passed on in their entirety to future generations, as the owner preferred to carefully choose that which should be preserved and that which could be destroyed instead.


The history of the archives, even public ones, is marked by this oscillation between the pressure to preserve or to destroy.


The history of the archives was privy to a fundamental innovation, above all from the end of the  XVIII century, when the concept of an archive as a public asset was gradually established, and not only as the exclusive property of the holders of power. From a tool used to command they became thus the guarantors of the rights of everyone, to which all must have free access.
Simultaneously, another great transformation also affected their use: those same documents that, in the past, had been used in politics and public and private administration become indispensable materials for historians. The archives, already “arsenals of power,” were thus transformed into “laboratories of history.”
The presence of the newly founded figure of the archivist guaranteed full access to everyone by granting them the possibility to unearth both the remote and recent past. Archivists have thus become the faithful caretakers of this collective memory.

From the page Welcome to the Archives by Diana Toccafondi, 2008