How are Archives Different from Libraries?

In the realm of information management, two key institutions reign: archives and libraries. While both treasure troves of information are not merely two sides of the same coin. Each possesses its unique purpose, organization, and treasures within. Yet, they often get confused or, worse, considered interchangeable. 

When considering the differences between archives and libraries, the practice of letter writing offers a fascinating point of illustration. Let's explore this idea recognized by many educators, learners, professionals like letter writers for hire, and others who inspire us to acknowledge libraries' and archives' distinct roles and functions. Notably, with imaginative library projects found at and exclusive archives, one should be able to explore these notions and see that archives differ from libraries in many ways.

Terminology Behind the Differences between Libraries and Archives

The terms' archive' and 'library' are often used interchangeably, and though they share similarities, the essence of their functions and the nature of their collections vary significantly. So, how do archives and libraries differ? Before diving into the answer, let's start with some vocabulary.

The term' library' derives from the Latin word 'liber', which translates to 'book'. A library, therefore, is traditionally a collection of books. However, in a modern context, libraries have grown to include various media forms such as magazines, newspapers, CDs, eBooks, and even digital materials. A library is organized to assist people in locating information on a wide array of subjects.

The words' archive' and 'archives' carry different connotations. An 'archive' refers to a single document or record, a piece of information with historical or informational significance. Conversely, 'archives' denote a collection of such documents, a repository focused on preserving, organizing, and making these materials accessible. Thus, while 'archives' is the plural form of 'archive', it encapsulates a broader institutional and systemic meaning.

With these definitions established, we can now explore the main differences between the notions. 

5 Criteria to Distinguish an Archive and Library

The primary distinction lies in their collections, materials' arrangement, and purpose and usage.

Nature of the Collection

  • Libraries: They contain published, mass-produced items such as books, periodicals, newspapers, multimedia items, and often digital resources. For instance, you'd visit a library to find a copy of a popular novel, a recent scientific journal, or the latest edition of a newspaper. Their collections are geared towards a broad audience with diverse interests.
  • Archives: Archives typically house unique, original items such as manuscripts, personal papers, letters, government documents, photographs, and audiovisual recordings. These materials often have historical or evidentiary value. For instance, an archive might hold original letters penned by a historical figure, the first draft of an influential piece of legislation, or a rare photograph from a significant historical event.

Organization and Cataloging

  • Libraries: Libraries use standardized classification systems like the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress Classification System to organize materials. This systematized approach allows patrons to easily navigate and locate materials based on subject matter. For instance, in most libraries, all books on art history would be grouped under a specific numerical classification.
  • Archives: Archives organize materials based on their provenance (origin) and in their original order, a principle known as respect des fonds. This method maintains the context of the records and preserves the relationships between different items. For example, all records from a specific company would be kept together, regardless of the diverse topics they might cover, from financial statements to employee correspondence.

Purpose and Usage

  • Libraries: Libraries primarily serve the purpose of general education, research, and entertainment. They aim to facilitate diverse inquiries, from a student researching for a school paper to an avid reader looking for the next thrilling novel to read.
  • Archives: Archives are used for preserving historical documents and other materials that have long-term value. Researchers, historians, or even genealogists frequently use archives to delve into primary sources for their work.

Access to Materials

  • Libraries: Materials are generally available for patrons to browse openly, borrow, and even take home. Libraries often operate a circulation system that allows for the temporary use of materials outside the library premises.
  • Archives: Materials are non-circulating, meaning they can't be borrowed or taken from the premises. Usage of archival materials typically takes place within designated areas in the archive under supervision to ensure the preservation of these unique resources.

Collection Development

  • Libraries: Libraries have an ongoing collection development process. They regularly add, update, and occasionally remove materials to keep their collection relevant and responsive to their users' changing needs and interests.
  • Archives: Archives usually aim to keep their materials permanently due to their historical or evidential value. While they continually acquire new collections, removing or deaccessioning items from an archive is a rare occurrence governed by strict policies and procedures.

These distinctions highlight the approaches archives and libraries take to preserve, organize, and provide access to information and history.

For inspiring innovation in the field of libraries, you can explore the "Cognotes2018" section on the Awesome Libraries website.

What Was First: An Archive or a Library?

Given many differences, we might ask, which came first, an archive or a library? The answer lies in the annals of history. The concept of archives dates back to ancient civilizations. For instance, the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia maintained extensive collections of cuneiform tablets, essentially administrative records and contracts - early archives. On the other hand, the oldest known library, the Library of Ashurbanipal, was established in the 7th century BC, containing over 30,000 clay tablets with texts in different languages. Thus, the historical record suggests that the concept of an archive predates the concept of a library. While these historical roots are still evident today, libraries and archives serve various educational, cultural, and informational purposes.

The Difference Followed in Letter Writing and Storage

It is easier to understand the difference between the notions by following their practice of keeping such an interesting type of writing as letters. Notably, the practice of letter writing has a significant connection to both libraries and archives, but perhaps more directly to archives.

In archives, letters are often vital components of collections. They can serve as primary sources that provide first-hand, contemporary accounts of events, sentiments, and relationships, offering invaluable insight into a particular period, individual, or topic. For instance, the personal letters of a political leader could provide unique insights into their thoughts, decisions, and character. Family letters might document genealogical information or social history. Often unique and irreplaceable, these documents form a critical part of the archival record.

A notable example is the correspondence between the famous American poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, preserved in several archives, including the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Their letters provide rich, personal insights into their lives, friendship, and writing processes, serving as an invaluable resource for scholars. Notably, many writers, especially a professional letter writer, try to copy the style of those letters to gain readers' attention. 

While libraries don't typically house original personal letters like archives do, they often include published collections of letters. These collections allow the broader public to gain insights into the lives and thoughts of individuals whose correspondences have been preserved. In some cases, libraries may also provide resources or host workshops on the art of letter writing and play an important role for personal letter writing services.

The Purpose of Libraries and Archives Today

Libraries and archives today are more than just repositories of books and documents. They are community hubs, research centers, and cultural institutions that support learning, inspire curiosity, and facilitate access to a world of information.

  • Educational Purposes: Libraries and archives play a fundamental role in supporting formal and informal education. For instance, academic libraries provide students and faculty access to various research materials, from textbooks and journals to electronic databases and scholarly articles. Archives, too, play an essential role in education, especially in fields like history, law, and sociology, where original documents serve as vital primary sources for research.
  • Cultural Purposes: Libraries and archives often serve as cultural preservation institutions. Libraries may house local literature, music, and art collections, while archives preserve historical records and artifacts of cultural significance.
  • Informational Purposes: In the digital age, libraries and archives have become information access centers. Libraries provide community access to the internet, digital databases, and e-books, often serving as a crucial resource for those who may not have access to such technologies at home. With their digitization efforts, archives provide online access to historic documents that were once only accessible in person.

These diverse roles illustrate how libraries and archives have evolved beyond their traditional functions, continuing to adapt in the face of changing societal needs and technological advancements. They remain essential pillars in our communities, preserving the past, serving the present, and preparing for the future.

While both archives and libraries play critical roles in preserving and disseminating information, they differ significantly in their collections' purpose, organization, and nature. Libraries offer published, mass-produced materials arranged for ease of access, serving the purpose of broad-based education and entertainment. Archives, in contrast, protect unique, original documents, ensuring their long-term preservation for historical research and reference. Both, however, are invaluable in their commitment to safeguarding the past and enlightening the present.