The Most Important Archives in the World


An archive is a facility that gathers, cumulates, and conserves the information or knowledge in a variety of formats, including journals, books, videos, manuscripts, magazines and newspapers, music, voice or sound recordings, antique or play-scripts, maps, stamps, patents, databases, prints, drawings, and more. The International Council on Archives has 1,400 members from 199 different countries.

But there are archives… and then there are archives. We’ve decided to take a look at some of the most important archives in the world that do not necessarily belong to just one country, but rather to the world community.

10. ARChive of Contemporary Music

Since 1985, the ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC) has existed as a non-profit archive, research center, and music library in New York City. More than three million sound recordings are housed in ARC. That’s more than 90 million songs. The ARC preserves more recordings than any other public, university, or private library in the United States. It may sound simple, but to put it into perspective, they maintain records of every version of every recording in all known formats, and they have electronically cataloged over 400,000 sound recordings and digitized 200,000 with their partners at the Internet Archive

The ARC also safeguards over three million items of supporting material, such as sheet music, press kits, photographs, books, magazines, videos,  DVDs, keepsakes, and other memorabilia. The value of the Archive of Contemporary Music lies not only in the rarity of many of their recordings, but also in the collection’s extensiveness, magnitude, and organization.

For every unique or signed copy of an early Beatles or Queen LP, there are dozens and dozens of noteworthy, formative, and often virtually obscure recordings that made a significant contribution to its creation, and hundreds and hundreds that gain from its creation.

9. The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre

Recently obtaining the formal nod as the world’s largest archaeological archive by the Guinness World Records, the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (or LAARC’s)  guarded treasures include over five million ancient artifacts and other records from almost 9,000 excavations that took place over previous centuries in the London area. In effect, that means that every time one of its myriad of storage boxes is opened, the city’s unanswered questions – from prehistoric times to the twentieth century – are transformed.

Some of the amazing, often jaw-dropping objects that can be found inside the LAARC’s 10 kilometers of cabinetry and 125,000 pale boxes include a collection of “witching bottles” (one even contains some toenails and human teeth), a 200-year-old pair of false teeth, a swordfish bill, shoes worn from the Roman period to the present day, gothic coffin plates from London’s burial sites, several exotic animal skeletons and bones, and other oddities.  Though the LAARC is impressive, it goes out of its way to not only to be a large storage facility but to also be one of the world’s most significant archaeological research centers where interns, trainees, students, and even regular volunteers can help process the artifacts and visitors can observe the relics.

8. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

The art collection at the Met encompasses more than five millennia of art and its history, from the very first civilizations of the ancient world to contemporary artworks on display today. Its permanent collection includes artwork from Ancient Egypt and classical antiquity, to drawings, paintings, and sculptures created by some of the most famous European masters, as well as a significant collection of contemporary and American art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Archives are as overwhelming as can be imagined and preserves extensive collections of ancient Asian, Oceanian, Byzantine, African, and Islamic art. According to their 1870 Constitution, the secretary “shall have custody of and preserve the corporate seal and the archives.” That is quite the responsibility.

As such, until the early 1960s, the Archives mainly served as a resource for the Museum’s officers, trustees, and of course the secretary, but it has since grown to respond to the interests of the Museum in its totality as well as the public. Today, the Museum’s General Council, its Senior Vice President, and the Secretary keep authority over the Archives. Unfortunately, the Archives are not easily accessible to the public and can only be visited or viewed by Museum employees as well as credentialed research scholars with a graduate degree or higher.

7. The Cinémathèque Française (Film Archive)

The Cinémathèque Française is one of the most extensive archives of film-related items, objects, and film documents worldwide. Its Keeper, Henri Langlois, actually started feverishly obtaining films in the early 20th century. By the start of the Second World War, he had amassed one of the most impressive film hoards in Europe. The archive’s influence on the historical record of French cinema is exceptional, as is its provocative keeper’s reputation. According to iconic French filmmaker Agnes Varda, Langlois stored his collection inside the bathroom of his parents’ flat, with boxes upon boxes of films crammed in and piled up to the ceiling. Over the years, it turned into one of the biggest archives dedicated to protecting and displaying films from multiple countries and eras.

As German troops invaded and occupied France, they began censoring, banning, and destroying any foreign or expressionist films they could obtain. Langlois quickly smuggled his vast collection out of Paris. The French government became involved at the end of the war and ended up playing a critical role in the enhancement of the Cinémathèque Française. Langlois received an Honorary Award at the 1974 Academy Awards for his unwavering efforts in the protection and preservation of film history, and he is still fondly remembered as “the savior of film.”

6. WHO Archives

The World Health Organization was founded in 1948 and works with 194 Member States, six regions, and over 150 offices to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. The WHO archive improves access to health information and scientific evidence, particularly in developing countries. Because their core values address universal health coverage, support, and availability during health emergencies, and the global community’s overall health and well-being, these archives serve an extremely important function – especially during times like the current COVID-era.

The archives are divided into two units: records (which are semi-active) and archives. Their mission is to manage and preserve WHO’s current and semi-active records and historical archives, which include invaluable records on non-communicable disease prevention, antimicrobial resistance, elimination and eradication of high-impact communicable diseases, and even the effects on the health systems of small island developing states as it pertains to climate change.

5. The Royal Archives of the Ancient Kingdom of Ebla

When Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza discovered the ancient city of Ebla in 1974-1976, they discovered a well-preserved royal library containing more than 15,000 clay tablets and fragments. The tablets contained the first known references to the “Canaanites,” “Ugarit,” and “Lebanon” and encapsulated a wealth of information on Syria and Canaan in the Early Bronze Age. Most inscriptions on the tablets focus on economic records, inventories recording Ebla’s commercial and political relations with other Levantine cities, and logs of the city’s import and export activities, indicating that Ebla was a major trade center.

They reveal, for example, that Ebla produced a variety of beers, one of which was actually named “Ebla” after the city. Ebla was also in charge of creating an advanced and powerful trade network system among city-states in northern Syria. This system clearly consolidated the area into a commercial society, as evidenced by the texts. The revelation of Ebla and its tablets has pushed scholars to rewrite the history of the Near East, establishing Ebla as an important third millennium cultural and economic center alongside Kish, Ur, Lagash, and Uruk. The tablets are currently being stored in museums in several Syrian cities. 

4. The UNESCO Archives

The Archives Service of UNESCO was founded in 1947 and currently has over 10,000 linear meters of densely packed shelves for written documents and reports, sound recordings, photographs, and hundreds of thousands of microfiches. The UNESCO archives were established as part of the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IICI), UNESCO’s forerunner. The Institute’s archives are a priceless source of information on global cooperation by hugely influential figures during the two world wars, such as Masaharu Anesaki, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Gabriela Mistral, Rabindranath Tagore, Marie Curie, and Taha Hussein.

Thousands of photos documenting watershed UNESCO moments such as the Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia and the Campaign to Safeguard the City of Venice are also included in the archives, as are films and almost 9 000 hours of sound recordings, including UNESCO Radio reports, video programs, and other unique interviews and audio files from the 1940s to the 1980s. The clips, which covered the major areas of UNESCO’s operations, were translated into many languages and broadcasted around the world under the tagline “Peoples speaking to Peoples.”

3. The Ottoman Archives

The Ottoman archives are a massive collection of ancient and historical records connected to the Ottoman Empire and several other nations, which would include 11 in the Balkans and EU, three in the Caucasus, 19 in the Middle East, Cyprus, the Republic of Turkey, and two in Central Asia, all of whose lands and settlements were once part of this magnificent Empire. The main collection, as well as the central State Archives, are housed in Istanbul at the Prime Minister’s Ottoman Archives.

The Ottoman Archives include records not only on the Ottoman dynasty and state but also about each state or country that possesses a share of these historic artifacts. Scholars have grumbled about being denied access to see the historic relics and documents in the past, despite the fact that it is promoted as being accessible to all academics. However, many Armenian genocide researchers, such as Taner Akcam (best known for his in-depth studies on the Armenian genocide) and the British-Armenian Ara Sarafian, have cited the Ottoman archives in Istanbul frequently when citing studies for their books, despite claims that their access was obstructed.

2. The Vatican Apostolic Archive

The Church had already amassed and began to compile a large collection of records by the first century. These records, known as the Holy Scrinium or the Chartarium, usually went everywhere the pope went. In fact, the process of moving the Popes’ archives from Rome to Avignon in 1309 took a total of twenty years. The Secret Archive was separated from the Vatican Library in the 17th century, on Pope Paul V’s orders, and remained inaccessible to outsiders until the late 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII opened the archive to researchers. Today, over a thousand researchers get to examine its records annually.

The Vatican Apostolic Archive, also known as the Papal Archives, has 53 miles (85 kilometers) of shelving that contains a treasure trove of priceless documents.  The material housed in the archive belongs to the pope as Sovereign of Vatican City until his death or resignation, after which ownership passes to his successor. State papers, letters, account books, and a variety of other documents accumulated by the church over the years are also housed in the archive. Henry VIII of England’s request for a marriage annulment, a handwritten transcript of Galileo’s heresy trial, and letters from Michelangelo complaining about not being paid for work on the Sistine Chapel are among the collection’s notable items.

1. The First and Second Historical Archives of China

With over 3,500 years of written history, China has the world’s longest continuous history. And even 3,500 years ago China’s civilization was already ancient.  Many people truly believe that no civilization has ever topped China’s great creative periods when it comes to philosophy or even art. In material culture, even though Westerners and Europeans tend to believe the roots of our own civilizations were mostly, or entirely European, we have in actual fact received much that is commonplace all over the world today from Asia – the compass, paper, silk, gunpowder, porcelain, and tea.

The history of Chinese archival development is almost just as long as the written records of Chinese history. The three most important recording forms of the earliest Chinese civilization were wood and bamboo strips, bronze ware, and oracle bones, which defined three distinct steps of archival interest, development, and growth in China. Early Chinese archival records were solely government or state administrative records. The fundamental guiding principles of an archival organization in ancient China were the imperial orders of feudal society. Today, China’s two most important archives, the First and the Second Historical Archives of China, which contains all the archives related to the Ming Dynasty, Qing Dynasty, and the Kuomintang period can be found in Beijing and Nanjing respectively.

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