A memory institution is an organization maintaining a repository of public knowledge, a generic term used about institutions such as libraries, archives, heritage (monuments & sites) institutions, aquaria and arboreta, and zoological and botanical gardens, as well as providers of digital libraries and data aggregation services which serve as memories for given societies or mankind. Memory institutions serve the purpose of documenting, contextualizing, preserving and indexing elements of human culture and collective memory. These institutions allow and enable society to better understand themselves, their past, and how the past impacts their future. These repositories are ultimately preservers of communities, languages, cultures, customs, tribes, and individuality. Memory institutions are repositories of knowledge, while also being actors of the transitions of knowledge and memory to the community. These institutions ultimately remain some form of collective memory. Increasingly such institutions are considered as a part of a unified documentation and information science perspective.
Archives are repositories that collect, organize, preserve, and allow for access to the institution’s primary source materials which include letters, reports, accounts, minute books, photographs, and manuscripts of the government, businesses, and members of the community. Most archival collections include permanent and valuable records of historical and evidential value. Archives fall in line with memory institutions because they provide surrogates for collective human memory. Archives collect materials to help communities, institutions, nations to better understand themselves, their past, understand the present and prepare for the future. Libraries are defined as a collection of resources that are made available to the community in the form of print materials such as books and periodicals by information professionals. Beyond books and periodicals, libraries also offer a variety of services and programs to the community in which they serve with the goal of educating and advancing society. Museums are a place where objects that contain permanent historical and cultural value such as works of art, three-dimensional objects, and scientific specimens. Museum can be characterized as historical, scientific, art institutions, heritage institutions, aquaria and arboreta, and zoological and botanical gardens.
Lorcan Dempsey may have introduced the term into popular use in library and information science, although others, such as Joan Schwarz, used it earlier. It also appeared in a 1972 report to the Council on Library Resources.
Helena Robinson (2012) criticized the term when she wrote, "[r]ather than revealing the essential affiliation between museums, libraries and archives, their sweeping classification as 'memory institutions' in the public sector and the academy oversimplifies the concept of memory, and marginalises domain-specific approaches to the cataloguing, description, interpretation and deployment of collections that lead museums, libraries and archives to engage with history, meaning and memory in significantly different ways."