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Entrance to the “archive chambers” in the Assurbanipal palace
Drawing of an archive cabinet, 16th century

An archive ( Latin: archivum 'filing cabinet'; from ancient Greek ἀρχεῖον archeíon 'official building') is an institution or organizational unit in which archived material is stored, made usable and preserved for an unlimited period within the scope of the responsibility of the archive or the respective collection focus (archiving) .

The term can also refer to buildings or rooms in which an archive or archive material is housed ( magazine ). Archives exist worldwide and in almost all cultures and areas of life. Archives emerged with the first written records and served from the beginning to secure important information, above all for long-term proof of property rights or contractual documents.

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

Together with other memory institutions such as libraries , documentation centers or museums , archives form the particularly sensitive cultural as well as the legal-administrative memory of a state, a municipality or a region. What is specific to archives is that the information to be retained contained in the archival material is unique as primary sources and, as a rule, has only been transmitted once. Archives with valuable information as part of cultural heritage are also threatened in armed conflicts . International and national coordination with regard to military and civil structures for the protection of archives is carried out by Blue Shield International , based in The Hague .

Archival material

Note archive

The archived in the archives of information and the associated information carrier, the term archival or archival summarized. A single archival material unit is also called archival material (neuter, plural archival material ).

Archival records are those parts of documents that are no longer required by bodies keeping records such as authorities , companies , associations , families or private individuals for current tasks and have been assessed by the responsible archive as being kept indefinitely ( archival evaluation ). These types of documents have the property that they authentically document the tasks (both mandatory and voluntary) and the activities of the respective document-keeping body (e.g. banking supervision of the Federal Ministry of Finance, water supply for a community, product design in a car company, scientific data from a research institute, diary or Correspondence from a private person).

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

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

Authorities responsible for records (registrars) 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 records can be archived or destroyed. The part of documents that has not yet been offered to archives is also referred to as filing material , especially in authorities and companies. There are significant legal differences between archive material and filing material, since archive material is no longer required for everyday tasks. However, there are similarities that are made clear by the model of the document life cycle .

The pre-archiving structure and handling of written material as well as the creation of processes and files is regulated by the records management of the administration of the agency responsible for the files (registrar). In the field of education records and files organization is increasing for many years deprofessionalization of work in the run visible. Unauthorized cashing or improper storage of official documents (see mold infestation) can mean that gaps in the delivery of important information have to be found during archiving. Due to the given task profile and very limited human resources, archives are not able to take over the basic work of the administration's file organization. The content-related transfers in the archive material therefore depend heavily on the status of the respective records management (organization of file management, file creation, file plan). Archives, and thus the archivists, are dependent on the filing of the respective registrar in a reliable, regular and complete manner. This also applies to the diverse digital traditions.

Extension of the term archive

Archive often simply stands for a place where the latest information is no longer available, for example many websites have a corresponding archive area. In archive it is not a clearly defined or even trademarked term. Very different institutions can call themselves archives , although it would often be more natural to call them old registries, libraries, museums or documentation centers.

The so-called archiving in the IT area leads to the dilution of the actual archive term. Many companies that offer or use digital registration 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 permanent preservation of their digital information is meant ( digital archive ). The use of the term archive in the IT industry is to be understood technically. For example, systems for electronic archiving or for data backup (see the tar file format) are called archives, although nowadays the access times from the perspective 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 data from electronic archives in locked safes.

In postmodern cultural studies , following Michel Foucault , archive is used as a generic term for information and knowledge stores such as B. Libraries are used, whereby for Foucault the term archive also means "the general system of formation and transformation of statements" far beyond a place of preservation. The term here encompasses all conditions under which statements and consequently knowledge can arise.

Archive types and archive carriers

In the archives in Germany and the German-speaking neighboring countries, there is a strong fragmentation and different orientation of the individual institutions. In Germany, the VdA divided 8 different archive sections, which in turn contain a wide range of archives.

The most important carriers 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 records of the responsible archive also depends on the archive carrier. The archives of the public sector generally include state archives , state archives, municipal archives , chamber archives as well as school and university archives . These archives fulfill a legal mandate. 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, archives of trade unions and employers' associations, guild archives and others.

In the area of ​​private archives, for example, there are company archives and archives of private persons or families, which are usually not accessible to outsiders. In addition, there are the archives in newspaper and magazine publishers. The Süddeutsche Zeitung is an 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 2,600 archives in Germany that are documented in the Archivportal-D .


The selection and thus the evaluation of documents from a registry designer is one of the most important tasks of an archive. The archivist decides which information is worth archiving and therefore stored permanently and which information is collected , i.e. H. be destroyed. The evaluation of documents is an essential task, since the archiving of all documents of a registry creator would lead to high costs for storage and maintenance. Furthermore, the professional selection of the information to be archived enables more targeted research and use of the archive material and the storage of redundant information is avoided. Despite falling storage costs, this also applies to genuinely digital documents. The necessary regular migrations into current file formats make the permanent storage of digital archival material 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 criteria. The evaluation decisions are to be recorded so that their traceability and transparency is guaranteed. In the archives of the federal states and the federal government, assessment models are increasingly being used that make binding statements for various administrative branches and authorities about the archival quality of the documents that arise there. Documentation profiles are becoming more and more widespread in municipal archives . This is a holistic approach to the formation of tradition for official and unofficial documents of the local living environment of an archive area (responsibility of the archive).


The indexing (the organization and listing of the archived material) takes place in specialist archives according to standardized procedures and usually according to the provenance principle .

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

One disadvantage arose from the fact that a document that was taken out of context is significantly less meaningful than a document that was left in its context of origin. The indexing according to the Pertinzenprinzip is mainly used today in the context of the indexing of collections and estates.

Based on the Anglo-American region 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 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 bibliographical formats to archiving needs has not proven successful. The International Archives Council (ICA / CIA) adopted ISAD (G) as an application standard for the description of archival material (General International Standard Archival Description) in 2000 , and in 2004 ISAAR (CPF) (International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families).

This takes account of the independence of archival working methods. The individualization of individual pieces is counteracted and the importance of the origins and purposes of origin articulated in the principle of provenance is taken into account. The standardization results in an improvement in the working methods that are based on practice and thus become the basis for the development of national standards.

The aim is for the user to be able to search the archives' finding aids in networked archive databases worldwide according to uniform standards.


Tape library (interior view)

Since archives are supposed to secure the mostly written cultural property entrusted to them permanently or at least for a longer period, the problem of preservation arises . One problem is, for example, the archiving of 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 for centuries, European documents from the 19th century often disintegrate due to acid corrosion . Restoration is often only possible through mass deacidification and subsequent stabilization processes, such as the paper split process. In addition, the preservation of different media formats, such as photos, tapes or films, is a major challenge that has to be carried out across disciplines by appropriately trained restorers .

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

The cultural property stored in archives is threatened in many countries by natural disasters , wars or other emergencies. There is also a strong pooling of existing resources in archives and the networking of existing specialist skills 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 of 1954 and its 2nd Protocol from 1999, the international partner for archives is the organization Blue Shield International . From a national and international perspective, there are many collaborations between archives and local Blue Shield organizations to ensure the long-term security of the holdings of cultural property storage facilities . This also applies to the collection of archives or other cultural assets to be protected, the creation of "no-strike lists", the linking of civil and military structures and the training of local military personnel with regard to the protection of cultural assets. Basically, in the event of disasters with regard to archives and other cultural assets, local alliances, ideally mediated or organized by Blue Shield, including help from accessible third countries, should achieve rapid damage limitation.


Uses as well as the evaluation and public relations work of archived material are at the end of the evaluation and indexing processes of the information to be permanently available. Use of information carriers (such as files, plans or photos) is subject to different legal norms. Above all, the development of data protection was the engine for the archive legislation . Respect for sensitive personal data plays a major role in public archives around the world. For example, personnel files can usually only be used some time after the death of the person concerned (in Germany 10 to 30 years). If the time of death is not known, a period from the birth (usually 90 to 100 years) is set. With the advent of the freedom of information laws, fears that used to dominate that users could harm the administration by viewing official files prematurely are playing an ever smaller role. In Germany, there is a standard blocking period of 30 years after the file has been closed for federal and state documents.


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 is also considered use in the legal sense. As the original registrar , the administration that maintains the archive is in part 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 security in specific legal issues even years later. The use and viewing of public and private archives for the purpose of researching, safeguarding and evaluating sources is one of the fundamental 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.

The numerous civil status registers , church registers and archived residents' registration files make municipal archives a popular point of contact for genealogists and private individuals looking for information about their ancestors. In order to clarify inheritance disputes and other legal proceedings, contracted lawyers or companies also turn to archives in order to obtain certified certificates or other documents for the legal protection of their clients.

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

Archival laws

In Germany there are various laws at the federal or state level that regulate the accessibility of archived material and formulate the tasks of archives. At the municipal level, corresponding regulations are formulated in statutes within the framework of municipal self-administration . The object of the archive laws with regard to the use of the archive is to weigh up the freedom of science and information on the one hand and the property rights of the persons concerned on the other. For this purpose, protection periods and other usage restrictions are formulated to protect the archive material. Compliance with the applicable archives law obliges the archives, for example, to refuse use if there is reason to believe that the welfare of the Federal Republic of Germany or one of its countries would be jeopardized, or the preservation status of the archives does not permit use.


Since archival material is unique as a primary source, it must be protected from damage through improper use and excessive stress. In the event of deliberate damage to the archive material, the user can withdraw his / her permission for use. To prevent vandalism, use is only permitted on site in special user rooms. Gloves must be worn by the user with very fragile archive documents, photos, negatives and sometimes also with drawings in order to prevent damage from sweat. The use of ballpoint pens can be prohibited in individual cases. Many archives used to make microfilms to enable archive users to view books and documents using microfilm readers. In this way, the originals were also spared and protected against improper use. Even today, microfilms are still a common conversion process in addition to extensive digitization measures in the archives. (see also retro-conversion )

The use of older archive material in particular can result in inhalation of dust particles and mold spores. Sensitive people could therefore react allergic in individual cases. Since it cannot be completely avoided that dust and mold spores contaminate archived material, it is advisable to protect yourself adequately when using it.

Literature on archive use

  • Norbert Reimann (Ed.): Practical archival studies, a guide for specialists in media and information services specializing in archives . Munster 2004
  • Angelika Menne-Haritz : key terms in archive terminology, teaching materials for archive science . 2., revised. Ed., Marburg 1999

Virtual archives

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

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 archive material was hardly widespread at the time. In 2004, Google announced the goal of scanning 15 million books by 2015. Google also cooperates with the non-profit Internet Archive project . Because of its approach - the start of digitization on a large scale, without first clarifying or regulating the copyright situation of the copied works in principle - Google Books met with considerable resistance in some cases, which also led to legal disputes. Google cooperates with numerous particularly large and old libraries as well as many university libraries :

The process continues to decline to this day.

The digitization of analog archive material - apart from 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 whole and complete files and series of files continues to be a major problem, as the content must always be mapped in the context of the creation (provenance, file, process, document). This therefore requires excellent records management by the administrations and registry creators (see above). In addition, a large number of rights (personal rights, copyrights, protection of secrecy) must be observed, which do not play a role in the secondary literature available in print.

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

Archive organizations and job description

German special postage 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 and archival specialist journals (in Germany, the archivist and the archival journal should be mentioned first, in which Switzerland Arbido , in Austria Scrinium ).

The Association of German Archivists (VdA) , among others, provides information on the current job profile and on the specialist training and further education of archivists in today's information society . Further information can be found in the VdA archive blog. The day of the archives offers opportunities to find out about the job description on site.

Archive lists

See also

Portal: Archives  - overview of Wikipedia content on archives


Web links

Commons : Archives  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Archive  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: archive  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikisource: Archives  - Sources and full texts

Individual evidence

  2. Karl Habsburg in an interview "Abuse of cultural goods is punishable" in Wiener Zeitung on June 29, 2012.
  3. ^ Corine Wegener, Marjan Otter "Cultural Property at War: Protecting Heritage during Armed Conflict" in The Getty Conservation Institute, Newsletter 23.1, Spring 2008.
  4. cf. Isabelle-Constance v. Opalinski "Shots on Civilization" in FAZ from August 20, 2014.
  5. Stadtarchiv Potsdam: "In principle, the archives can only be viewed in the user room"
  6. Quoted from Michel Foucault: Archeology of Knowledge, p. 188.
  7. Archive ( Memento from June 11, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) On: Geschichte Online , University of Vienna, 2004.
  8. List of archive laws on the website of the Marburg Archive School. ( Memento from October 10, 2012 in the Internet Archive )
  9. Cf. Martin Burkhardt: 3. The different types and carriers of archives in Germany . In: Instructions for use for archives . From: , 2006. Retrieved December 25, 2009.
  10. a b
  11. Uniform OVG rules and regulations of the state archives of the GDR.
  12. ICArchives: Startseite: Accueil
  13. Günter Engelhardt, Klaus Granich, Klaus Ritter: The sizing of paper . Leipzig (Fachbuchverlag) 1972, pp. 12-14.
  14. Otto Wurz: Paper manufacture based on modern knowledge . Graz, Vienna (Verlag Ulrich Moser) 1951, pp. 46–65.
  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. z. B. Hans Haider "Misuse of cultural goods is punishable" in Wiener Zeitung on June 29, 2012.
  17. ^ Marilyn E. Phelan "Museum Law: A Guide for Officers, Directors, and Counsel" (2014), pp. 419ff.
  18. ^ Aisling Irwin "A no-strike list may shield Yemen`s ancient treasures from war" in Daily News of January 23, 2017.
  19. Markus Walz (Ed.) "Museum Manual: History, Tasks, Perspectives." (2016), p. 238ff.
  20. See archive laws and other laws ( Memento of April 16, 2009 in the Internet Archive ). In: Archive School Marburg .
  21. ^ Archives Act of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, Section 6 - Use
  22. On the use of microfilm in archival preservation (pdf, 2014)
  23. ^ Jens Redmer: The Bavarian State Library becomes the largest non-English library partner. In: Inside Google Book Search. March 6, 2007, accessed March 11, 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.