Holdings: Words of the Archive

Definition of ‘record’ from 1696.

Words, words, words. Archives are packed with them – in record books, in documents, in deeds, in letters, in catalogues, on box labels, on captions, and plenty of other places. But what words do archivists themselves use to talk about what they do? As a lexicographer, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the words associated with archives and archival practice. Like every other field of activity, archiving has its own specialist vocabulary. Sometimes a particular term will be completely unfamiliar to the lay person, though often, as we can see below, a familiar word is simply repurposed in a specific, extended sense.

The word archive itself dates from the mid seventeenth century, ultimately deriving from the Greek word arkheia meaning ‘public records’. Archivist is a slightly later word, coming into English in the eighteenth century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word is this, from 1753: ‘Under the emperors the Archivist was an officer of great dignity.’ Happily, in my experience this continues to be the case.

An English Dictionary from 1696.

My understanding is that most archives, such as those held in the Library of Birmingham, are structured roughly on the following lines. A collection is a whole body of material (letters, documents, photographs, and so forth) held by an institution. The more technical term fonds (borrowed from French) is sometimes used by archivists to describe an entire collection originating from a single source. An accession is one of the individual bodies of material that form part of the collection and that arrived at a particular time, for example as a gift or purchase. A file is a group of documents that are related in some way. And an item is an individual document or other object held in a file.

Let me take each of these words in turn. Collection has been in the English language since the late fourteenth century, originally in the sense of ‘a gathering together’. An early meaning of accession (sixteenth century) was ‘a coming on or an attack of an illness or emotion’, as in ‘an accession of fever’. Around the same time it could also refer to something joined or added to another thing. The sense of ‘an addition to the collection of a library, museum, or archive’ dates from the late eighteenth century. The verb (‘to record something as a new accession in a library etc.’) dates from 1887.

A file was originally a string or wire hooked up between two points and on which papers and documents were strung to keep them in order. The word came into Middle English from French filer ‘to string’, in turn derived from Latin fil ‘a thread’. You can see the connection to other words that have the idea of a thread or string as part of their meaning, such as filament, fillet, and filigree. In time, the word came to be applied to other means of holding papers together so that they could be referred to easily.

The word item started life in English in the late fourteenth century as an adverb, not a noun. Derived from Latin, it originally meant ‘likewise or also’ and was used to introduce each new article or particular in a list, inventory, or other document. The noun sense arose in the late sixteenth century. In archival use, an item is the smallest indivisible unit of a collection.

Returning to the word file, I like the image of a hand stretching up to pluck a particular document off a string, almost like unpegging a shirt off a clothes line. There is something reassuringly concrete in the idea, in contrast to our less tangible world of virtual files, folders, and documents. Other terms in archival use have a similarly tactile, physical quality embedded in their origin. The word record comes from Old French recorder ‘to bring to remembrance’, itself derived from Latin recordari ‘to remember’. Each of these words is ultimately based on the Latin word for ‘heart’, cor. So, in a sense, when we make a record of a piece of information it is as if we have learnt it ‘by heart’. In its early use, a deposit was something physically put down or laid aside in a safe place, later applied to items entrusted to an institution for safekeeping. We refer to the collections kept by an institution, rather fittingly, as its holdings. Even the word digital, used archivally in phrases such as digital object and digital surrogate, and seemingly diametrically opposed in its meaning to hands-on experience of actual objects in the real world, derives from digitus, the Latin word for ‘finger’.

I know that the archivists who work, or have worked, in the Library of Birmingham often talk about the physical connection they have with individual photographs, letters or documents they have held and handled in their (sometimes gloved) hands. And of course this connection also exists with all those millions of words found in the archive, when so many of them – a name in a ledger, an entry in a diary, a comment on the back of a photograph – have been written in ink or pencil, by hand.

Andrew Delahunty
June 2017


Oxford English Dictionary – online edition: (Oxford University Press)

Archives Hub glossary:

US Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) online glossary, based on Introduction to Archival Terminology, Maygene F. Daniels, published in A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice (National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1984):


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