Archival conundrum: to keep or not to keep?

One of the most difficult tasks in archiving (as in archaeology) is deciding what to retain, and what to dispose of (or put on the spoilheap). Similar underlying principles govern both disciplines.

Firstly, the research agenda: what is the archive for? Who will be using it? How significant is the material within the framework of a) what we think we know about the past and b) what future researchers might want to know about the past?

Second, the pragmatic agenda: is there space for this material? If it is kept, will this take up space and prevent us from retaining more important material (measured against criteria 1 above)? How much will it cost to conserve this material?

In archiving as in archaeology, the rule-of-thumb should be the same: if in doubt, keep!

All this ‘what is the point of an archaeological archive’ angst has been provoked by these:


Christopher Hawkes’ original box files. The contents – letters, documents etc – have been catalogued and been placed into acid-free archival storage boxes. We don’t want to continue using the original boxes for storage because they are not acid free, and their internal spring mechanisms will damage the contents.

Normal archival practice would be to discard these boxes. But the archaeologists in us think of the history of objects, and the story these box files have to tell. The labels on the outside are written in Christopher Hawkes’ own distinctive handwriting. These labels represent how Hawkes thought about and partitioned his research. These were the boxes which formed part of his research environment: a physical embodiment of his ideas and framework for thinking and retrieving information.

Some of the boxes may have older histories: this one, re-used by Hawkes, was made in Germany. Did it once hold part of Paul Jacobsthal’s archive?


On the other hand, these boxes take up a lot of valuable space. What would you do – would you keep them?

About Archaeology Archives Administrator

Researchers in the archives of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Home of the Historic Environment Image Resource. Passionate about old photographs and fresh biscuits.
This entry was posted in Archives Progress, Christopher Hawkes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Archival conundrum: to keep or not to keep?

  1. Ricardo Muñíz says:

    May be like a document is not valueble, but if we considerer the item like example about how the person make a box to keep items, so they have a diferent value.

  2. arwintcher says:

    Could they be re-purposed in the office in some way? I’d think the label might be worth preserving, though. Tricky to decide!

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