Archiving vs. Saving

As an archivist, the word “archiving” means something very specific to me.  When I say “archiving” I mean selecting records for long-term preservation and maintaining them.  This means that only certain records (ex. documents, images, videos) are selected through a process using defined criteria to make a determination.

As The Deletist I will emphasize an important part of the process: not everything gets saved.  That’s actually the point.  The time, space, and resources are not available to save everything.  When I save everything so that I can restore documents in case of a system crash, I call this a backup, not an archive.

Since receiving my archivist designation, I have learned to accept different interpretations of the word in both my professional and personal life.  For example, when I speak with an IT person using the word “archive,” I know that the interpretation is “save everything, often on cheaper disk space, so restoration is possible if the system crashes.”  The goal, from the IT perspective, is about availability and restoration, which is quite different from that of an archivist.

When I speak to friends who talk about “archiving” pictures or documents, the meaning is somewhat similar to that of an IT person, except preserving everything rather than restoration might be the primary focus.  Numerous reasons exist for why people “archive” so many things.  Some possible reasons might be:

Procrastination – After amassing terabytes worth of data the sheer volume seems daunting, but is not an issue because the storage space is readily available and cheap.

Fear – Sometimes people are afraid to get rid of things for fear of needing them later, or getting in trouble for deleting something erroneously.  Fear of never being able to find anything rarely seems to enter this equation.

TIme – see procrastination. The sheer volume of stuff increases the amount of time needed to go through it, and if space isn’t a concern, why rush?

Indecision – Establishing selection criteria can be challenging. It’s not always easy to decide what to keep and what to purge.  This is a process fraught with gray areas.

Sentiment – We get attached to things for all kinds of crazy and irrational reasons which all seem perfectly valid to the person making the decision.

Today’s lesson:

If you’re going to have an “archive,” be mindful of what it actually means. And if you’re saving everything without any process involved, it’s just backup, or a giant collection of stuff.


7 comments for “Archiving vs. Saving

  1. Anonymous
    4 March 2014 at 08:27

    Great blog. Thanks for the distinction between archiving and saving.

  2. James
    4 March 2014 at 13:47


    Let me be the first to congratulate you on the not only know how an IT person perceives the word archive but also knowing that that word is interpreted differently by different professions
    For example, I am IT. Due to the fact that I have had some experience dealing with archiving, to me an archive and a backup are different things. But I do understand that some IT take an archive to mean a backup. What is important to know, in my opinion, is that most IT people would consider an archive to be backup of sorts. Let me explain. From the IT point of view a backup is the system in question is backed up and can then be restored in the event of a crash or any file corruption. An archive is the preservation of certain pictures, documents or movies. This is a backup of sorts. But to an IT person as long as the data is backup and can be restored, its considered a backup. So in a sense we are talking about doing the same thing in different ways.

    • The Deletist
      5 March 2014 at 12:10

      Yes, an archive is a backup of sorts, but one that is made deliberation and care. And yes, in some sense we are talking about the same thing in different ways, but most IT people just aren’t as concerned with selecting data as they are with saving all of it for restoration purposes. In my mind that just makes it backup. I know that “archive” in the IT world is also used to refer to cheaper disk space, but to me, if there’s no selection process involved, it’s still just backup.
      As always, thanks for your comments!

  3. genevieve
    4 March 2014 at 21:55

    I appreciated the distinction made here. With the virtual world I feel as though I am saving EVERYTHING but I dread sorting through it all to pick and choose what is important.

    • The Deletist
      5 March 2014 at 12:12

      Yes, this is a common challenge that many people face. A lot of people dread the sorting process because it’s difficult and time consuming. You’re not alone.

  4. mar
    5 March 2014 at 19:16

    As someone that has to talk to and sometime act as a translator between users, archivists and IT folks, I think you bring up another really important issue and that is to talk to people in the terms they understand. This is probably even more important than trying to get people to understand the idea of archiving in the archivist sense.
    Several times in the last few months, I have heard colleagues (and, yes sometimes myself) basically telling people that they are using the term archive incorrectly. The last time this happened I started thinking maybe this was not the right approach…duh. Let’s face it, we are not going to get non-archivists (and allied professions) to change the way they use the word archive (and library for that matter).
    Our time might be better spent making sure we understand the context and speaking in a way that we are understood. I do think that we need to keep talking about organizing, selecting and preserving, just in ways that others will get it. They normally do (even if they forget soon after).
    Thanks for reminding me of these issues!

    • The Deletist
      5 March 2014 at 22:10

      You raise a good point, but if we’re not going to bother to use terms with their proper meanings, then I think it always introduces an element of confusion into the equation. I’ve basically learned to turn a deaf ear and not cringe openly at the misuse of such an important term! I am constantly using contextual clues to decipher the intended meaning of the term. Another important tip is asking the person what s/he means when using the term “archive”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.