Tag Archives: LexicographyArchives & Colletions

Holdings: Words of the Archive

Definition of ‘record’ from 1696.
[A094/1696/21]

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.
[A094/1696/21]

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.

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