The History of Words: Archival collection

Organising records in a methodical and thoughtful way has not always been the norm.
It took several centuries for the concept of archival collections to come into being.
Here is a look at the history of this archiving term.

Today, the Association of French Archivists defines an archival collection as a set of documents that a person, natural or legal, has produced or received during their daily activities, collected in an organic way and preserved for future use.

However, the concept of maintaining collections – of grouping records from a specific institution or person together and keeping them separate from others – has not always existed. Until the early 19th century, administrators and archivists commonly separated groups of documents with the same origin or grouped documents of different origins together. For example, at the time of the French Revolution, the National Archives in Paris housed documents from the Treasury of the Royal Charters, the Parliament of Paris, the abbeys and convents of the Paris region, the ministries of the royal government and even documents from the emigrant princes.


A circular to put things in order

Archival collection conceptThe first archivists of the National Archives, Armand-Gaston Camus and Pierre Daunou, saw this mass of records as a single documentary collection. In 1841, however – during his time as head of the administrative section of the departmental records at the Ministry of the Interior – French historian Natalie de Wailly developed the theory of structuralism. De Wailly was the inspiration behind the circular issued on April 24, 1841, which is widely seen as the birth certificate of archival collection concept. He defined it as follows: “To group documents in collections means to collect all the records from specific companies, institutions, families or individuals and place them in a specific order. The documents that relate to one institution or family, should not be confused with the archival collection of another institution, business, or family.” De Wailly later added that classification by archival collection was the only methodology that could ensure the timely implementation of a proper and consistent order.

The obvious theoretical value of this principle was subsequently recognised by archivists and historians in most European countries.


The principle of provenance

Archival collection conceptToday, an archival collection is characterised by two features: it is composed of documents having the same origin, and its existence depends on respecting this organising principle, called the principle of provenance. An archival collection can contain all types of documents, regardless of their age or format. However, not all sets of documents are archival collections. A collection of objects (such as coins, paintings) or books is not an archival collection.

For example, the Musée d’Orsay today holds many private archival collections from artists, collectors, art galleries and art dealers. It is also home to collections concerning the Gare d’Orsay train station, the hotel it housed, and its transformation into a museum. These archival collections are major sources of information for those interested in art history and the cultural, social and artistic history of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They complement the collections of the Musée d’Orsay and provide valuable information on the history of various works and artists.

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