Glimpses into the ARF Photo Archives: What is an Archive, Anyway?

For the past few months, I have had the great privilege of working through the collection of over 3,500 photographs in the archives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF).

The photographs have been meticulously scanned and thoroughly cataloged already by some colleagues. My job has been to go through the list, fix or fine-tune whatever needs an extra pair of eyes – at times involving some engaging and surprising supplementary research – and upload the images onto the photographs section of the website. Some finishing touches have often been further supplied by more colleagues still. It is a real team effort.

Now that we are past the 1,500 mark of uploaded photographs, I have put together a few brief articles for the pages of the Weekly highlighting some themes and takeaways from the collection. This venerable newspaper has shared insights from the ARF Archives on more than one occasion in recent years. Beyond anything else, I would like to invite readers to have a look at the images for themselves at Maybe you will find a great illustration for a report, a fun tidbit to share with family and friends, or a familiar face or two – relatives or ancestors, perhaps?

To start with, it is worth asking: just what is an archive, anyway? What gets to be called an archive – as opposed to, say, a scrapbook? How are archives even made?

The term “archive” can be quite broad. It comes to English via French and Latin, ultimately from the Greek arkhe, meaning “beginning” or “first,” the same root for “archeology.” That is also the same root possibly shared with the Armenian arka [արքայ], meaning “king.” In Armenian itself, the word bahots [պահոց] could be used to mean an archive – suggesting a place for storage. Another word is tivan [դիւան], which is more associated with courtly, official record-keeping. 

All of the above suggest a systematic documentation of materials – so, maybe indeed like a scrapbook, but much bigger, covering a longer period of time and including information and objects that have probably had some measurable impact on society. Official archives have public significance, after all – history worth preserving and sharing. The archives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation are now in the process of being made more and more accessible for that very reason.

At the same time, how archives are compiled requires judgment and pointed effort. Getting up to the level of “systematic documentation” can be tricky, costly and time-consuming. In addition, some items never get preserved or get lost along the way, for all sorts of reasons (wars, natural disasters, conspiracies, carelessness…). For scholars studying the origins of government and statehood, the spread of bureaucracies serves as a strong indicator of the organized regulation of public life. Their activities tend to be especially directed towards conscription and taxation – controlling armies and money have long been the most important characteristics of governments. The establishment of archives forms part of such processes.

However, if there ever were a nation that could not claim a regular, stable political path, it would be the Armenians. And so it comes to pass that the ARF Archives present, in fact, a motley and not-necessarily-systematic collection of materials, whatever has managed to survive. In one of his very last public lectures – delivered at Soorp Khatch Church in the Washington, D.C. area in May 2023 – the late Prof. Richard Hovannisian recounted how he first came across the boxes of documents pertaining to the Republic of Armenia in Boston covered by a thick layer of dust. That was probably sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. The record-keeping of the young republic of 1918 is certainly included in the ARF Archives – to whatever extent possible given the upheavals of 1918-1921. Papers from the ARF as a political organization are likewise there. The photographs, for their part, stretch from the era at the beginning (arkhe!) of the Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries (as it was first called) of the late 19th century, all the way up to the 1970s, possibly later still.

One reason why it is important to share the photographs far and wide is the first theme from the collection that would strike anyone clicking through the website – a lot of unknowns.

One reason why it is important to share the photographs far and wide is the first theme from the collection that would strike anyone clicking through the website – a lot of unknowns. Many of the posts are entitled “Unknown Man” or “Unknown Group.” One of my favorite parts of the job is deciphering the handwriting that appears on the back of many photographs. Sometimes it is quite clear. Other times, a few good guesses need to be thrown in with accompanying question marks. And then, very often, there is no information at all accompanying the pictures. But they still need to be shared. So they go on the website as an “unknown.” I hope that someone somewhere will recognize the subject or the event and eventually chime in.

My colleagues and I recognize these imperfections in the archives. We also acknowledge our own limitations in the way we document and share them. Library science and database management are well-established disciplines and practices. We are doing our best with the chief aim of opening up the materials at the ARF Archives to the public. In future, we hope to be able to preserve and present these materials even more professionally, with more detailed records. Right now, we intend for the website to serve as a tool and resource for a broad audience.

(The ARF Archives is glad to hear even now from scholars and researchers, if anyone wishes to make a specific project proposal for a closer look and first-hand access to materials, depending on their availability.)

For my own part, I can say that, for example, choosing to transliterate between Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian pronunciation standards has been challenging when putting up the materials in English. Publishing information in the original Armenian would also be worthwhile at some point down the line. That is just one detail that comes to mind as I sift through episodes of history and understand my own responsibility in shaping how generations to come will perceive generations past. That is another impact archives have, directly or indirectly.

In the meantime, going through the collection is like unwrapping a Christmas present with every click. You never know what’s going to happen, who’s going to show up next! We Armenians already get two Christmases every year. People working on archives evidently get multiple Christmases a day.

In future glimpses into the ARF photo archives, I shall curate some images from the collection – many of them thought-provoking, some surprising, at times funny and always interesting. They form a part of our collective story and now give us the chance to form a fuller picture of our past.

Nareg Seferian
Nareg Seferian has lived, studied and worked in New Delhi, Yerevan, Santa Fe, Boston, Vienna, Istanbul and Washington, DC. His writings can be read at


  1. Nareg makes this project interesting and accessible even to those of us who are largely innocent (not to say ignorant) of the importance of this project. It is reassuring that a scholar of his temperament has started to grapple with what must be an overwhelming challenge. Apres, Nareg!

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