Archives: Definitions, Universal and Local

The word archives usually conjures up either a sense of old things or the accumulations of documents, more and more often, electronic documents. But the definitions of archives are actually both wider and more straightforward than these senses.

According to the Society of American Archivists glossary, archives are:

1. Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records.

2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization’s records of enduring value.

3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives.

4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations.

5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections.

6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.

Modern archives were formed around principles of accountability and evidence generally dated to the French Revolution (1789-1795), but parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama even today retain aspects of religious and civil cultures that placed an emphasis on recordkeeping in the early 1700s. The priests and nuns, military men, and adventurers who settled the area left traces of the templates of inscription that made up their societies. They wrote letters home, they were part of a criminal and civil legal system that required documentation, and they acted as commercial agents for themselves or others. While later local traditions of recordkeeping followed the same patterns as elsewhere in the nation, especially after 1804, these newer records and manuscripts were folded into previously established beliefs about, and a street knowledge of, archives unlike any others in the U.S.

Music is not often found in the early eighteenth-century records. The earliest judicial records do, however, show a declaration of the rights given slaves to sing and dance, and a notice of songs in a case involving a tavern owner. The nineteenth- century and twentieth-century musical cultures, on the other hand, are represented in regional archives in diverse forms: sheet music, religious scores, programs from recitals and concerts, advertisements for music lessons, recorded sound, photographs, and oral histories.

If you look at any book on New Orleans culture, you will find citations to these record forms and the archives that house them. On the other hand, most histories are written as if all archives are always open, always available, plentiful, and unmediated. The archives is a hidden partner, or at least one found only in the acknowledgements and the small print of footnotes. This partial concealment creates the impression of direct contact between the scholar and the past. Yet all archives are gathered and grow only because of years of processes of selection and rejection, and of heroic retention in face of obstacles such as humidity, disastrous storms and fires, and more mundane threats such as lack of space.

Similarly, archives are never without the biases of their societies. If music was not a priority to those who wrote records in the earliest days of the area’s past, neither, until quite recently, was the presence of women thought important enough to enter the archival record. Scholars of women in music have learned that they must look not only to what is within an archives but also to what is missing from an archives. Only after 1970 did scholars undertake such an approach. The current task for scholars is to consider also the many meanings of femininity and masculinity. Following their lead, we might also ask how new scholars in turn build a different type of archives as they deposit their research notes, their oral histories, their photographs, their recordings for others later to use.