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University of Amsterdam 

Department of Media Studies


Turfdraagsterpad 9


The Netherlands


E-mail mailto:eric.ketelaar@uva.nl:  or archivistics@xs4all.nl






What is archivistics or archival science?

Archival science is a science in the European sense of Wissenschaft. To avoid, however, confusion with the natural sciences in the Anglo-Saxon meaning, I personally use the term archivistics, being the equivalent to the Dutch archivistiek, the German Archivistik, the French archivistique, the Italian and Spanish archivistica

Records are always created and used on account of work-processes and actions that give the archives their context and structure. These elements determine the form of the documents. Archivistics focuses itself on context, structure, and form as determined by these processes and not on the contents of the document.

Archivistics is concerned with basic questions as: what makes a society or an organization create and maintain records and archives the way it does and will a better understanding of the way people in organizations create and maintain records and archives enable us to make statements about an efficient and effective way of creating records?1 We therefore look at societies, organizations and people that create archives. This, I have named social and cultural archivistics. Its object is the continuum of records creation, processing, and use.

Traditionally, the object of archival science was the body of archives once they had crossed the threshold of the repository. The archivist used to be a mere custodian or keeper, at the receiving end, dependent upon what the administration had created and passed on.

But recently the archivist's focus has shifted from the inactive stage of the life of recorded information to the front-end of the records continuum. There, he or she has a contribution to make even before documents are captured by a record-keeping system. To be able to develop the information strategy and the record-keeping system of an organization, the archivistics professional has to understand the way people create and maintain records and archives. To arrive at such an understanding, one should also take into account the stage that precedes archiving. That is what I have called: archivalization - the conscious or unconscious choice (determined by social and cultural factors) to consider something worth archiving.2

Archiving and archivalization are influenced by social, religious, cultural, political and economic contexts. These may vary in any given time and in any given place. That challenges archivistics to be a comparative science.3 Comparative archivistics is more than treating and teaching a subject from an international and multicultural perspective, since it asks for ethnography followed by ethnology, for 'what' followed by 'why'. Comparative research should be carried out in the present, cross-cultural and cross-societal, but also in the past.


My values.4

More than 60 years ago I started using libraries and archives. Later, as a professional  archivist, archival educator, archival administrator and as a scholar of archivistics I have always celebrated the uniqueness of archives, rooted in the processes and functions that produced records and by the context of other documents created by the same activity over time. I consider it the archivist’s calling to advocate that uniqueness which benefits processes of “meaning making” leading to identification and categorization; self-understanding and social location; commonality, connectedness, and groupness. Identities are rooted in memories and these memories need inscription and need a space. Both inscription and space will increasingly be “located” “in the cloud” and maintained (in distributed custody) by individuals, groups, and memory institutions. Together they are actors in an ecology which comprises archives/records and other memory texts in a societal context. For archivists this means a lot: partnerships with communities and professionals in other memory institutions; endeavouring to new forms of Web 2.0 and participatory archiving; and embracing a paradigm shift on the horizon, which Terry Cook labels Community, enriching “our own identity as archivists, transformed to be relevant actors out in our society’s communities more than proficient professionals behind the walls of our own institutions.”5

Archives are social spaces that help forming and hosting communities. Archives moreover serve as spaces of memory, where people’s experiences can be transformed into meaning. Archives are a place of shared custody and trust.

Eric Ketelaar


1 Frank G. Burke, The future course of archival theory in the United States, American Archivist 44 (1981) 42-43.


2 Eric Ketelaar, Archivalisation and Archiving, Archives and manuscripts 27 (1999) 54-61; Eric Ketelaar, Archivistics Research Saving the Profession, American Archivist 63 (2000) 322-340.

3 Eric Ketelaar, The difference best postponed? Cultures and comparative archival science, Archivaria 44 (1997) 142-148repr. in P.J. Horsman – F.C.J. Ketelaar – T.H.P.M. Thomassen (eds.), Naar een nieuw paradigma in de archivistiek. Jaarboek 1999 Stichting Archiefpublicaties (Stichting Archiefpublicaties, ’s-Gravenhage 1999) 21-27.


4 Adapted from Ketelaar, E. (2008) Archives as Spaces of Memory, Journal of the Society of Archivists 29, 9-27, and Ketelaar, E. (2014) Archives, memories and identities” in: Caroline Brown (ed), Archives and Recordkeeping. Theory into practice (London: Facet), 131-70.


5 Cook, T. (2013) Evidence, memory, identity, and community: four shifting archival paradigms, Archival Science 13, 95-120, here 116.