Development of Access to Archives

Ancient archival records were comprised mainly of “laws; records of administrative activity; financial and accounting records; land ownership and tax records; records that facilitated ‘control over persons’ in areas such as military service and forced labor; and ‘notarial’ records, by which the state sanctioned and preserved the private transactions of individuals” (O'Toole 2004, 165). While archives have changed a lot since they first appeared in ancient times, their basic functions and recordkeeping practices are recognizably similar to how they were when they first began. The ideas of accessioning and provenance, and the use of series are evident in these early archives. In Rome, record groups were created and series are evident and arranged in a manner that allowed rolls to be identified as distinct units and were tagged with a labeling system. These arrangement systems allowed people to retrieve documents that had been placed within an archive (O'Toole 2004). While this arrangement system would have made record retrieval easier, one historian believes that Republican Rome’s archives were not open to the public. Instead it is believed that records were held privately by significant members of society, and only under very few circumstances were other people allowed to view them. If a document was intended to be viewed, then it would be publicly posted; otherwise, citizens had no access to the records of their society. It is also believed that retrieval and public service were not a part of Republican Roman archives (Culham 1989).

Another factor that affected peoples’ access to records in ancient archives is the location of the archive in the city. Many of the ancient archives were located in prominent areas allowing for easy access (O'Toole 2004). While this does not mean that everyone had access to the archives, it does show that the archives were open to citizens. Arrangement systems were not the only similarity between modern and ancient archives; there is evidence that the Greeks provided reference services to patrons of the archives (O'Toole 2004). One historian, however, disagrees with the predominating idea that archives were open to the public. She instead claims that the archives of ancient Greece only contained the records of debts to the state; all other records were held privately by the individual whose duty it was to perform the task. Like Republican Rome, only those records the government wished its citizens to see could be viewed by posting them in public areas (Culham 1989).

If the commonly held notions of public archives are true, then citizens living in a community with an archive had much of the same modes of access that modern archives provide today. They had systems of arrangement to make retrieval of records easier, and there were people at the archives to help them find what they were looking for. While their systems were much more rudimentary than modern archives, the systems of arrangement and reference services show that ancient archives were not just a place to store records, their retrieval and use was also important. However, there are historians who believe that the archives were not a place to house public records, which means that access to records would be restricted to very few people.

During the twelfth century in medieval Spain there was a great increase in recordkeeping activities. This was partly due to the creation of the Crown of Aragon, and also due to the extension of the reconquest into Muslim Valencia. During this time, archives began to grow, and this growth led to better recordkeeping practices. The new Arago-Catalan realm had a government that was a public administration, so governors began to rely on public records, which meant that a better system of retrieval was necessary. Indexing, tagging and classification techniques begin to emerge due to this large influx of records and the necessity for them to be accessible (McCrank 1993). New necessities for intellectual access begin to emerge in Spain during the twelfth century; this increase in need led to better techniques for the retrieval of records.

Prior to 1066, records were housed in monasteries had no real method for arrangement. Though there were feeble attempts to reform recordkeeping practices after 1066, it is not until Elizabethan England (around the 1500s) that arrangement practices began to surface. The need for better recordkeeping practices arose because England began to rise as a nation-state, which led to a feeling of increased nationalism, but also to political, religious and legal controversies. Records were used to research the past to help settle disputes. In order for these researchers to obtain the information they needed, a systematized method for recordkeeping was needed. Arthur Agarde, an archivist during sixteenth century Elizabethan England, put strategies in place to gain control over the massive amounts of incoming information and the records needed by those doing historical research. Arthur Agarde compiled catalogues, calendars and inventories that improved the state of British documents. He also systematically and logically described records and where they should go. To further aid researchers accessing the archives, Arthur Agarde created finding aids to aid historians in their research (Yax 1998).

Arthur Agarde improved retrieval and access of records through his reforms in recordkeeping; however, not all members of Elizabethan society were privy to this new system and the increased level of access to records that it provided. In order to access archival records in Elizabethan society, a person had to meet two requirements. First, they must have been introduced to, and known by, the deputy chamberlains, and second they had to have had money. A fee was charged for inspection of a record; a transcription of the record would require further fees (Yax 1998). While Arthur Agarde improved access to the archival records through his new methods of description, the requirements to enter the archives could only be met by a small portion of the population, limiting the amount of people able to enter and benefit from the archives.

It is not until the French Revolution that ideas that an archive should be accessible for all people began to surface (Posner 1940). The French Revolution occurred in order to create a more egalitarian republic, and these ideas carried themselves to archives as well. The archives were seen as a public institution open to all citizens, not just the upper echelon (Panitch 1996). The opening of the records to all citizens was perhaps, in part an attempt to glorify the events of the Revolution and to distinguish between the role of archives before the Revolution and their role after. Prior to the Revolution, archives were only open to the wealthy upper classes; lower classes were not permitted and saw no need to enter, since the relationship between the people and the state was not one where the people monitored the actions of the state (Valge and Kibal 2007). The French Revolution created a governmental system where the state was responsible to the people; therefore, a need arose for all members of society to access archival records to hold their government accountable. After the Revolution, the archives were opened to all people and much of the documents formerly housed in archives were burned or discarded (Panitch 1996).

The ideas regarding access that formed during the French Revolution carried themselves into the Twentieth century. No person was barred from entering an archive based on connections or wealth, and this alone greatly improved the amount of people that could have access to archival records. During the 1940s however, scholars, archivists and the public were beginning to complain about poor reference services. This is not typical of all archival institutions, but it was a large enough problem to be published in the journal “American Archivist.” The reference archivists appeared intimidating, apathetic or were unhelpful in finding the materials. This lack of knowledge and unwillingness to help led to a new barrier in accessing records. The records housed in the archive are essentially useless if the staff and public did not know where or how to find them (McCain 1940). It was important for staff to have a high level of knowledge of the collections held in an archive, especially since prior to 1990 there was no national standard for archival description.