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Library, Museum, or Archive?

Libraries, museums, and archives seem rather similar, but they each serve a different purpose. Howard Besser explained it best in their February 2004 report to the Canadian Heritage Information Network:

Though libraries, museums, and archives all look like similar repositories housing cultural resources, there are some fundamental differences in mission, in what is collected, in how works are organized, and in how the institution relates to its users.

The traditional library is based upon the individual item, but it is generally no[t] unique. Archives manage groups of works and focus on maintaining a particular context for the overall collection, Museums collect specific objects and provide curatorial context for each of them. These distinctions of the fundamental unit that is collected and why affect each institution’s acquisition policy, cataloging, preservation, and presentation to the public. 

Most people are familiar with libraries and museums, so here we will focus on archives. There are many different types of archives (government, family, digital, music, etc...), but at their core they all function the same. They function as a place in which records of events are kept and are a place where "people can go to gather firsthand facts, data, and evidence from letters, reports, notes, memos, photographs, and other primary sources" (What's an archives, n.d.). Personal archives are just as important as National Archives, but they serve a small subset of people -- mainly your family-- whereas the National Archives serves as a resource for the entire United States and beyond. 

Archival Collections of the Pacific Northwest


1. The organized body of non- current records made or received in connection with the transaction of its affairs by a government or a government agency, institution, organization, or other corporate body and the personal papers of a family or individual, which are preserved because of their enduring value. 2. The agency responsible for selecting, preserving, and making available such materials. 3. The repository itself. in American usage, the term “archives” is a collective noun, though the form “archive” is increasingly seen (Levine-Clark & Dean, 2013, p. 15).


Are "selected, arranged, described, and preserved according to the principles of provenance (referring to the creator of the record whether individual, family, or institution) and original order (records are maintained in the order in which they were maintained by their creator). Through these principles, archives ensure the authenticity, reliability, and evidential value of the records that they are charged with preserving for posterity" (Mattock, et al., 2018).


1. The person in charge of an archival repository. 2. a person responsible for any of the tasks engaged in archival work, including accessioning, appraisal, arrangement, description, disposition, exhibition, preservation, and reference services (Levine-Clark & Dean, 2013, p. 15).

Digital archive:

A collection of digital objects, typically centered on a common theme, and intended to preserve and provide access over time. Content of digital archives can be either born digital or scanned. Synonymous with digital library, digital repository, and repository (Levine-Clark & Dean, 2013, p. 85).


  • A place where people can go to learn. Most museums have exhibits and collections. These institutions may be nonprofits or run for profit. They may have large or small staffs, or they may rely completely on volunteers. The generally accepted idea of a museum, according to such organizations as the American Association of Museums and the International Council on Museums, is a place where people can see and learn about things. This often is described as public service through education. Through museums' collections, humankind may interpret the world and learn more about itself (Campbell, 2020).


Besser, H. (2004, February). The museum-library-archive. Canadian Heritage Information Network 

Campbell, J. (2020). Museum. Salem Press Encyclopedia 

Levine-Clark, M. & Dean, T.C. (2013). ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science (4th ed.). ALA Editions.

Mattock, L.K., Theisen, C., & Burek Pierce, J. (2018). A case for digital squirrels: Using and preserving YouTube for popular culture research. First Monday23(1). doi:

What's an archives? (n.d.). U.S. National Archives and Record Administration. 

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