What is archivistics or archival science?
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.
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.
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? 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.
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.
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. 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 pas