Archival principles for medical librarians

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Medical archives: promoting efficiency and effectiveness (22 pg.)
Association of Canadian Archivists
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see also Archives 2.0 | Digital libraries | Institutional repositories | Metadata | Records management

Archival principles for librarians is an entry providing guidance to those with responsibilities in the management of archival records or entire medical archives. Most health librarians are not required to manage archival materials let alone an entire archive unless their work directly involves curation of historical documents and monographs. That said, even though medical librarians may not be well-versed in archival principles, they can nonetheless take formative steps to learn the basics in the area, and read the seminal texts in the references below.

To begin, therefore, let's examine some basic archival principles and aim to distinguish them from related concepts such as records management and electronic health records. In arranging materials for an archive, archivists are trained to apply two critical principles: first, respecting the provenance of materials and second their original order - which refers, in the French tradition, to the notion of "respect des fonds". The principle of provenance is critical for the exterior organization of archival material according to its creator: an individual or body which has created and received documents and set them aside to be preserved. In other words, materials originating from a specific individual or organization should be considered as a body of material and kept together. Further, they should never be intermingled with records of different origins (provenance or parentage). This interior arrangement of original order preserves the archival bonds, or relationships, made between files as they were created and used during the normal course of business activities.

Materials sharing the same creating body are called 'fonds' and the principle of respect des fonds reflects the French archival tradition. The thinking behind provenance is that in order for any fonds to serve as evidence, it is critical that evidence be traceable to its origins. For the evidence of the creator's activity preserved in the fonds to be as useful as possible for later researchers, the context of the activities occurence must be preserved in the original order and the archivists' work is providing context and understanding through arrangement and description.

Archival concepts


  • Archivists appraise records for their permanent value, and decide whether they will be disposed of or retained. Materials that have long-term or permanent value to organizations are considered archival. According to the Society of American Archivists, appraisal "... is the process of evaluating [these] records to determine their value and ultimate disposition based upon their current administrative, legal, and fiscal use; their evidential and informational content; their arrangement and condition; their intrinsic value; and their relationship to other records. This process will aid you in determining the ultimate disposition of your records which may include placement in an archives, retention for a specified period of time, or immediate destruction..."

Arrangement & description

  • The arrangement and description of archival records requires professional archival training. Holmes identified five levels of arrangement within fonds: repository; collection or record group; series; file; and item. Many archives arrange records only to the file level, but some archives arrange items within each file. Arrangement is often combined with the process of rehousing materials into archival containers and folders for preservation, and labelling and shelving of materials for easier access. Archival arrangement and description is the process of organizing materials with respect to their provenance and original order to protect their context and achieve physical or intellectual control over materials with finding aides and indexes. It can be an iterative process of better understanding the context of the material to best preserve the original order and write descriptions that give later researchers a better idea of the context of the material. Archival arrangement is distinguished from classification of a library which places materials in an order established by an ontology. Finding aids that describe fonds are used as inventories or surrogates in archives, and include the use of metadata and descriptive standards such as Encoded Archival Description, ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description, and in Canada, RAD (Rules of Archival Description).


  • The history of diplomatics (not to be confused with diplomacy; however, both words are etymologically descended from the Latin diploma or Greek δίπλωμα, meaning a folded paper or document) is as interesting as the concept itself. Simply, diplomatics deals with the analysis of (old) documents, their creation, forms, means of transmitting information, and how facts within reveal important aspects of their creation. Webster's defines diplomatics as the "science of diplomas, or of ancient writings, literary and public documents, letters, decrees, charters, codicils, etc., which has for its object to decipher old writings, to ascertain their authenticity, their date, signatures, etc." The study of diplomatics is a very valuable tool for historians, as it enables them to determine whether alleged historical documents are authentic or forgeries. The techniques of the field are used to help date undated documents. Diplomatics was originally developed in ancien regime France as a way to prove the authenticity of documents for juridical purposes and for a time was taught as an auxiliary to law. The word diplomatics was first used by Mabillon, a Benedictine monk, who published a six volume treatise on the topic in 1681, De re diplomatica or "The study of documents" refuting questions about the authenticity of certain monastic charters in his Abbey. In the 18th century, Tassin and Toustain's published a similar treatise entitled Nouveau traité de diplomatique.


  • The most important archival principle is le respect pour les fonds (respect for the fonds). According to Jenkinson, the fonds is the chief archival unit in the Continental system, and the basis of all arrangement. As such, the fonds is an organic whole and any administration, or one or more of its fonctionnaires, can create one. Hayworth says there is a Canadian preference for the French term fonds to define records of one creator which originated with Towards archival descriptive standards (1993). The use of fonds was selected to avoid terminological confusion which has grown around the terms 'record group', 'manuscript group,' 'collections,' and so on. Practically speaking, respect for the fonds was adopted to preserve the chain of accountability of records that document similar functions and activities produced by growing bureaucracies. Finally, it is critical to know who is responsible in each transaction and to maintain an authoritative custodial lineage. It must be emphasized that the fonds is not so much a physical entity as it is a conceptual summary of descriptions of physical entities. The fonds, therefore, should be viewed as 'an intellectual construct' not simply "...a box of files".


  • Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from" refers to the ownership or location of historical documents and objects. In archives, the principle of provenance (the origins, custody and ownership of something) which is the basis of the respect des fonds holds that records of different provenance should be separated in order to retain important contextual information. Provenance is a fundamental archival principle, and refers to the individual, family or organizational unit that created or received items in a collection. Duranti says that provenance has never been more important but suggests that it may lead to a hierarchical 'top-down' approach to appraisal. She says this approach excludes 'powerless transactions' which might provide important social context from the permanent record of society, and therefore cannot be applied in all cases.


  • Trustworthiness is a notion that borrows from a number of legal and historical disciplines, but especially the field of law where rules exist about the admissibility in court of authentic, reliable documents. As Duranti suggests, documents should be created with authority, according to identifiable processes, and be complete in all their formal aspects. Further, they should be " ...what they purport to be (that is, authentic) by controlled procedures of transmission and preservation, and presumed to be truthful (that is, genuine and reliable) as to their content (Duranti, 1995). Therefore, the trustworthiness equates with the idea that something is authentic, not forged or subject to manipulation or substitution, and can be verified as reliable across time and space (preservation and transmission).
  • For more discussion, see also Read K. "Why medical librarians should learn archival theory". Kevin the Librarian blog, August 22nd, 2012.

Medical archives

What types of materials might a medical archive decide to keep? The medical archivist will select materials that may no longer be needed for regular usage but must be preserved permanently due to their evidential and / or informational value. Some of the priorities for the creation of the medical archives are ensuring that the materials are easily accessible in a secure, safe environment, and that there is a plan for long-term maintenance of the facility. Some of the duties typically undertaken by a medical archivist are: material acquisitions, appraisal, arrangement and description, preservation and storage, reference services and outreach. Most medical librarians will begin to see similar patterns from the archive within their own work especially with respect to the delivery of information services, space and access. However, a number of new concepts and services need to be understood and require specialized training.

To gain further insight into archival principles for medical librarians, see Lipscomb (1993), Sokolow (1993), Spadoni (1984), Reaume et al (1996) and Welch et al (2011).

Types of archival documents in health systems

  • patient records; architectural drawings; founding documents; charters
  • minutes, reports, resolutions, correspondence, and memoranda of health organization's governing body and committees
  • financial records and auditor’s reports; legal documents; employee files
  • bound documents and manuscripts, including correspondence, financial records, staff service records, etc.
  • hospital publications, including annual reports, policy and procedure manuals, newsletter, brochures, etc.
  • hospital and patient registries; clinical summaries, casebooks, and case files
  • photographs, albums, and photographic negatives
  • correspondence (personal and professional), diaries, journals, notebooks, scrapbooks; newspaper clippings; news releases
  • paintings, historical artifacts, instruments, equipment

Digital archival materials

Most faculties, schools and departments of medicine are required to consider, at least at some point, the acquisition, curation and preservation of their organizational artefacts. In the digital era, these activities extend to materials that are born digital and that may be difficult to identify. Luciana Duranti, an archives scholar from the University of British Columbia, is the project lead of INTERPARES, a multi-year project that examines the preservation of the integrity of documents in the electronic era. Although INTERPAREs has brought together scholars from diverse fields, the project's key concepts and methodologies are drawn from diplomatics and archival science. One of the INTERPARES guidelines provides recommendations for individuals who must curate digital materials for their organization. The guidelines are useful for organizations and groups of individuals such as physicians, medical offices, consultants or teams of researchers.

SAA's Joint Statement on "Qualities of a Successful Candidate" for Archivist of the United States

Professional journals


These publications discuss how to go about establishing and maintaining an archive, including the acquisition and preservation of papers, arrangement, description, appraisal, access, confidentiality and the law, and a host of other issues. Note: for medical libraries, see AABC, Lipscomb (1993), Sokolow (1993), Spadoni (1984), Reaume et al (1996) and Welch et al (2011).

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