Archives, Museums, and Libraries: What’s the difference?

In this blog we look at what distinguishes archives from museums and libraries – and it’s not just about what they collect.

By Ember Taylor, Archivist, Acquisitions and Research

The Archive at the National Maritime Museum contains over 12 linear km of records and makes up a substantial part of the Museum’s collection. But the Archive is a little more than a collection of paper objects. This blog post will explain and describe how an archive differs from a museum object collection.

The differences 

Several obvious distinctions may come to mind. Museums contain ‘things’, libraries hold books, and archives hold old paper. These are broadly correct: museums are generally concerned with collecting objects, some of which are displayed in exhibitions.

Libraries deal with information products, like books, magazines, and periodicals, arranged by subject classification and physical form. Archives hold unique records which have been selected for permanent preservation. Library collection items are for the most part not unique, with some exceptions, such as rare books, where their provenance or the presence of annotations or inscriptions may render them unique objects.


Perhaps the most fundamental difference however is that whilst a museum or library may impose an arrangement on their collections, and an archivist may do this too, an archive is inherently structured in a way that preserves the interrelationships between individual records.

Vital meaning is lost without this additional context: Think, for example, how much contextual meaning disappears when an individual paper record created and used by a business is viewed in isolation of all the other records that a business creates. It is the job of the archivist to preserve this context.

The Fonds

The principle behind this structure centres around what in archival science is called the fonds. Although often used interchangeably with ‘collection’, the fonds carries a slightly different meaning. More than just a collection of singular objects, it names a provenance, common to all records within the fonds.

It is both a starting point and a container, the virtual raw material out of which the collection of individual records develops and organizes. In the context of a business collection, the fonds would simply be the business organization itself.

ISAD(G) is the cataloguing standard that describes how the fonds is structured. Its defining feature is that it is hierarchical. The fonds is divided into layers of description, with information at higher levels applying to levels below; this avoids repetition. The process of cataloguing is the organization of the fonds into this structure.

Diagram of ISAD(G) fonds – fictional example

Traditionally in archival science, the objective nature of the archive has been emphasized. We should, however, remember that the archivist is always choosing which of many possible provenances to prioritize when cataloguing.

So, to summarize, the Archive differs from the museum and library in terms of the type of material that it tends to hold, but at a more essential level, in how material is managed.

Instead of organizing practice around discrete objects, subject classification or physical form, archival work centres around fonds, identifying and isolating certain agencies of creation, and organizing material accordingly.