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The Biography of Archives


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


The original task of the archivist is the description and arrangement of archives. Leading principle is:

  • the ‘respect des fonds’ (this principle dictates that archival materials, when transferred to archival custody, remain as distinct collections catalogued and filed according to their creator or office of origin)

  • the ‘respect de l’ordre’ (this principle demands that records in these distinct collections are maintained in their original order).
    The principles of provenance prohibit the re-arrangement of materials within collections as this would break the intertextual relationships of documents and thereby ensure that the researcher using the archive sees the records as the creating agency (for example a ministry) saw them. Thanks to this principle, the historian can try to determine what the office/historical actors knew at a specific moment in time and how that knowledge affected its actions.

In this research seminar the student will sit on the chair of the archivist and take care of the description and arrangement of a promiscuous archive. How do you start the work? What questions do you have to answer? How do you treat old paper? Next you will do research on the institution that created the archive. How looked ‘life’ of this institution, what was its role in society, how and why did it end?

The purpose of the research seminar is twofold:

  • the description and arrangement of a small 20th century archive

  • the composition of the biography of an archive: the institutional history

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;

  • in the specialisation Archival Studies: insight into the significance of archiving processes for the way in which a society deals with its documentation heritage in general and its historical practice in particular; disclosure, including digital disclosure, of archives as part of the broader heritage sector.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:

  • in the specialisation Archival Studies: theoretical foundations of archivistics; assessment and selection of archives.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

  • 13) Thorough understanding of the mechanisms of record creation and use of records by using the theory of the records continuum

  • 14) The ability to analyze the successive workprocesses and activities which are at the basis of creating records

  • 15) (ResMA only): the ability to make the description and arrangement of a 20th century promixuous archive.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar
    The first part of the course will be given in Leiden, the rest of the instruction hours in the Nationaal Archief in The Hague.

Course Load

Amount of lectures: 26 hours
Practical work: 10 hours
Assessment: 4 hours
Literature : 40 hours
Assignment: 200 hours

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, containing (a part of) the inventory and the research report of the institution, including references and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-14

  • Oral presentation
    Measured learning objectives: 3-7, 9

  • Writing literature review and research plan
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8


Written paper: 70 %
Oral presentation: 15%
Writing literature review and research plan: 15%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • course information

Reading list

  • G. Yeo, 'Custodial History, Provenance, and the Description of Personal Records' in Libraries and the Cultural Record 44 (2009) 50-64

  • Randall C. Jimerson, 'Archival description and finding aids' in OCLC Systems & Services: international digital library perspectives, 18 (2002) 3, 125-129

  • Tamaro I. Taylor, Basic Archives Processing Manual for Student Employees and Volunteers (2010)

  • Mark Crookston, 'Reinventing archival methods: am I part of the problem or part of the solution?' in Archives and Manuscripts 42 (2014) 161-164


  • T. Eastwood, ‘Reflections on the goal of archival appraisal in democratic societies’ in Archivaria 54 (2002) 59-71

  • Kate Cumming and Anne Picot, 'Reinventing appraisal' in Archives and Manuscripts 42 (2014) 133-145

  • T. Thomassen, ‘Archivists between knowledge and power. On the independence and autonomy of archival science and the archival profession’ in Y. Bos-Rops, G. Janssens, Ch. Jeurgens, E. Ketelaar, Lezen! Teksten over het archief (Den Haag 2009);


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Dr. P. Brood