As well as sources for the study of the period, Renaissance archives are a subject of scholarly inquiry in their own right. Early modernists have increasingly appreciated the significance of a knowledge of record-keeping practices in research, and how an understanding of archives as contingent and culturally specific warrants reading their history, organization, and uses as mirrors (perhaps distorting ones) of culture, politics, and society.
Renaissance archives make up a heterogeneous and dispersed panorama of sources ranging from administrative documents and official records to personal papers and private collections. Examples are the archive of the d’Este family, initiated in the mid-15th century and preserved in the 19th-century building of the Archivio di Stato di Modena, or the Archivo General de Simancas, founded in the 16th century and still located in the same 15th-century castle where it was originally established.
The unprecedented development of public and private record-keeping during the Renaissance made archives ubiquitous and an inescapable part of the lives of many. The proliferation of archives must be connected with cultural and political changes such as the spread of literacy, the growth in size and complexity of states and institutions, and developments in the organization and management of the records. War, fires, and accidental destruction have severely damaged valuable materials, while dismemberment and reorganization have compromised entire collections; however, Renaissance archives have been reintegrated into modern institutions and still shape them in many ways. Focusing on archival practices rather than on archives as products enables us to view the history of archives in Europe as a series of transformations in which to identify elements of continuity and phases of rupture.