When and how did “archive” become a verb?

Archives are places. They are institutions. But to archive is also an action. Web Archiving is a process that produces web archives and personal digital archiving is a set of practices for working to ensure longterm access to personal digital content.

When and how did archive become a verb? Webster’s dates the noun usage to 1603 and the verb usage to 1831, but I’m curious how obscure the verb usage was over time.

My sense/hunch has been that the verb form of archive, is tied up in the history of computing. A tape archive is a higher latency storage mechanism. There is a long standing use of “archiving” as a concept that involves writing to tape. The term tape is itself part of the name of .tar files. So, when did archive become a verb and to what extent is archiving related to the development of computing?

This kind of question is exactly the sort of thing that Google n-gram is useful for. Over time I’ve generated a few different graphs of trends around the verb usage of archive in Google books and posted them to twitter. It seemed like it would be worth taking a few minutes to explore that data a bit more. What follows is really just some initial notes on some searches. I’m curious to get other interpretations on what we learn from these charts and examples of usage.

When the archived and began archiving

The graph below, shows trends in usage of archive in the Google books corpus from 1920 to 2000. Overall, it would appear that the term archive has seen a good bit of growth in its relative frequency in appearing in the corpus over time.

If we take out the noun form of archive and extend this back to 1800, you can see that there are a tiny number of examples of the verb forms going back all the way to beginning of the chart in 1800, but that things don’t really start to take off until the late 1960s.

The Emergence of “Archiving” 

One of the best parts of Google n-gram is that it is a book search tool as much as it is a visualization tool. That means that we can poke around and see the examples where these different usages emerge.

Below is an example of one of the first instances of the term “archiving” connected to the term “data” in the google books corpus. It’s from a 1968 appropriations hearing for a climatological data center. That places it right at the inflection point for the verb form usage of archive.

From that point out, the term archiving seems to appear primarily in relationship to computing. All of the examples of the term archiving are references to data for usage of the term in google book results from the 1970s.

With that noted, there are two examples from 1969 that involve using the term archiving in relationship to folklore.

A longer past for archiving and archived

As noted in the beginning of this post, Webster’s suggests the verb form of archive came about in 1831. There are a range of examples of “archived” that show up, even earlier than 1831, for instance the example below from 1823 or this other example from 1816.

The snippet below is one of a series of documents from the turn of the 20th century in Texas that use the terms archiving and archived that appear to largely be related to usage of the term in the “Constitutions of Texas

There are even a few other earlier examples of “archiving” that show up, like in this 1913 report from the Nevada Historical Society reports a “need of better archiving” in a heading in the table of contents.

So when did archive become a verb? 

It would appear that archive has been a verb for more than two hundred years. With that noted, it does also largely appear to be the case that the verb usage didn’t really come into broader usage until the late 1960s when it was largely associated with data and computing.

I’m curious to see what other examples or perspectives others have though. I was a bit surprised to surface some of these earlier examples of uses of archiving and archived.

2 Replies to “When and how did “archive” become a verb?”

  1. Hi,
    I’m currently working on a book about Michel Foucault’s archive thinking. He often uses the French standard plural noun ‘archives’ but in 1969 he wrote ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’, launching the conceptual ‘archive’ (singular). I’ve done some work on the history of the French noun(s). A singular form existed in Old and Middle French (archive, archif) but was displaced by the plural around 1700. I’m less sure as to how the English singular noun fared over time. Has your research touched on that matter? PS I found your article most interesting.

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