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Differences between archival, library and museum material

Archival institutions, libraries and museums are frequently considered as related institutions. Although libraries, museums, and archives all look like similar repositories housing cultural resources, there are some fundamental differences in mission, what is collected, how works are organised, how items are described, and in how the institution relates to its users. Here is a comparison that will highlight the main differences between the three institutions.

 Procurement/acquisition of items

Archive materials are generally acquired directly from the author or creator. Documents are usually donated, not purchased. Most of the times archivists with a broad knowledge of documentary heritage select records with archival value for acquisition. The selection of records is usually in accordance with archives acquisition and appraisal policies, and institutional mandates. Archive repositories are obliged, usually in terms of legislation, to accept the qualifying records of stipulated legal persons/organisations within a defined geographical or political area, and therefore cannot refuse them.


Library materials are mainly acquired through publishers or library vendors. Materials are usually purchased but libraries also receive significant gifts from private individuals. Materials are usually selected by subject specialist librarians. Materials are usually selected in accordance with library collections policies and institutional mandates. Libraries are not subject to any geographic restrictions and may gather literary evidence from across the world.

Museum materials can be purchased or donated. Materials are usually selected by the museum specialist in accordance with museum collection policies and institutional mandates. Museums may gather objects from across the world but are restricted by clearly defined areas of specialisation.

Types of collections

Archival collections consist mostly of unpublished material (i.e. letters, manuscripts, etc.). The collections are made up of individual, stand-alone or related items. The material is usually unique and not available anywhere else.

Library collections are mainly made up of published material (e.g. books, journals, etc.). Collections are subdivided into discrete categories. The material can often be found elsewhere.


Museum collections consist mainly of objects with little textual content, often physical artefacts such as furniture, clothes, cutlery, etc. The material is usually unique, but can sometimes also be found elsewhere.

Organisation of collections

Archival materials are organised in line with principles relating to provenance. Archivists try to retain the order of the documents as organised by the creator(s) of the collection. The intellectual order of a collection is presented in the finding aid. The physical order of a collection depends on the size and format of materials and therefore may not match the intellectual order of the collection.

Library materials are organised according to subject classification. The organisation of the collections is determined by the library and not the creator(s) of the material.

Museum material is mainly grouped together to form a theme for exhibition purposes. The objects are therefore organised by the museums themselves, rather than the creator(s) of the material.


Description of collections

Archival materials are described on a number of different grouped levels within the collection or fonds (e.g. fonds, series, sub-series, file, item). Descriptions of each part of the collection are linked together into a ‘multi-level’ archival description, or finding aid. Finding aids often contain access points such as subject headings, geographic headings, and authority records (i.e. name(s) of the creator(s) of the archival materials).

Library material is described on an individual level (e.g. catalogue record for a single book). Descriptions of individual items are not linked together unless they form a series of items. The library catalogue records contain subject headings.

Museums collect mostly unique objects with financial, cultural or historic value. These objects often require significant attention and efforts in terms of security and ongoing preservation. In many museums, the information searching systems are designed for the use by the staff and not for the general public.

Access to collections

Archival materials are not made available outside of the institution and must be accessed on site. Only select materials are available online. Access to certain information may be restricted (e.g. personal files, adoption records, birth records). The materials must be handled with care. Archives tend to be research driven. They are accessible, but can only be consulted in an allocated area. The researcher must go through the ordered records physically, item by item, to find the information they require.

Most library materials can be taken off-site or can be accessed online. However, there are some items (e.g. special collections, rare collections) which are only available on-site. Libraries tend to have open access policies, in other words, they advocate free and open access to information in all formats for the general public. Libraries are user-driven and provide access to a vast amount of material, through which the user is free to roam and select the item/s they are interested in.

Museum materials are not available outside of the institutions and therefore must be accessed on site. Only select materials are available online. The public are generally not permitted to handle the items, which are primarily exhibition materials. A large proportion of items are on permanent exhibition in display halls to which the public has access. Museums tend to keep most of their collections in secured storage, which is not open for public access. Museums are curator-driven. Historically, they have only provided access to limited holdings, (usually exhibited through a particular interpretation or context), as directed by curatorial and educational staff. The museum provides a framework of context and interpretation, through which the user can navigate.

Commercial value

Archive material has no commercial value and financial considerations play no part in its creation. Archival collections cannot be sold and most countries' archival laws make it an offence to break up collections.

Library material is commercially saleable.

Museum items are commercially saleable.

Archives repositories, museums and libraries are considered heritage institutions. They are each designed to assemble a single body of knowledge, but their distinctive operational practices and standards tend to isolate them from each other. Despite their differences, all of them have a strong educational and recreational role to play in the local community.

Besser, Howard: The Museum-Library-Archive, 2004.
Johnston, P and Robinson, B: Collections and Collection Description, 2002.
Lo, P, But K and Trio, R: Different Missions, Common Goals – Museum-Library Collaboration at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum in the Service of Local and Family History and the Conservation of Documentary Heritage in the South China Sea, 2013.
State Archives Handbook, 1991.

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