While a large collection, or records of value that are housed in an archive are impressive and can help to raise the prestige of an archive, an archive’s true value lies in its ability to offer access to the records that it houses. If people are not able to access the information contained in the records of an archive, then the archive itself is of little worth. Access to records is also an important way for people to keep their government accountable. The actions of a government should be transparent and society should be able to scrutinize these actions. This means that records housed in an archive must be accessible. This paper will provide a brief overview of access principles that affected citizens from accessing archives throughout history. The dates will range from ancient archives to medieval up to the recent past (around World War II). Who had access to archival records and services, and how were they able to access the records will be discussed in relation to ancient and medieval archives. The French Revolution was a time of great change for France, these changes carried into their archives, and made an effect on France and the rest of the Western world. Reference services became an issue around World War II, their importance was beginning to be realized in the 1940s and they continue to be an integral aspect of access to records. In assessing the present state of access to archival materials, legalities such as the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP), search aids and digitization also become important factors in determining the ability to access records. Finally, I will speculate on improvements that can be made to improve access to records in the future.
Before discussing the history of access to archival records, there should be clarity on what an archival record is. According to the Dictionary of Archival Terminology, a record is “recorded information regardless of form or medium created, received and maintained by an agency or institution, organization or individual in pursuance of its legal obligations or in the transaction of business” (Walne, Evans, and Himly 1984, 386). Since the records can be in any format, there are some special considerations to keep in mind with regards to access. Not all records will be as accessible depending on their format.