Red tape in the archives

By Leah Sander

Nearly 20 years ago, as a young archivist, I had the privilege of working for a year at the National Archives of Scotland (now the National Records of Scotland) in Edinburgh. Archival practices in Scotland are generally similar to those in Canada. One important difference, of course, is that Scotland has a much longer paper recordkeeping history than Canada, and the holdings of the Scottish national archives reflect this.

Another difference that I noted at the time was in terminology. To keep records of the same origin together in a way that would not damage the records, staff at the National Archives of Scotland used a natural-coloured woven ribbon that to my surprise was called “archival tape.” It was clearly different from the adhesive substance that I associated with the word “tape.” This ribbon was not adhesive in any way, was simply used to tie things, and was made of archivally safe material.

After learning about the use of the word “tape” for this particular material, I came across original documents tied with a dark pink ribbon, which would have been used by the original recordkeepers. A Scottish colleague pointed out that this was the origin of the expression “red tape”—the red or pink ribbon used to keep related bundles of records together was literally red tape, before the term had any figurative meaning.

 A colour photograph of a register with pink ribbon wrapped around it.

Original pink ribbon (red tape) around a register, before conservation treatment, at the Library and Archives Canada storage facility in Renfrew, Ontario. Photo credit: Elise Rowsome, LAC

It was not an exclusively Scottish practice to use red tape in recordkeeping. Many European countries used this material for binding records in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, exporting it to the colonies that later became the countries of Canada and the United States of America. My first job after working at the National Archives of Scotland was at the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Archives in Winnipeg. I quickly became aware that the HBC, whose headquarters until 1970 were in London, England, also used red tape.

A colour photograph of rolled maps tied with undyed ribbon.

For preservation purposes, pink ribbon was removed from these rolled maps and replaced with undyed ribbon at the Library and Archives Canada storage facility in Renfrew, Ontario. Photo credit: Cory Dunfield, LAC

Because many Western bureaucratic organizations and governments frequently used red tape in their recordkeeping, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries, the term became synonymous in the English language with the excessive procedures and delays of administration that were common among modern bureaucracies. Many archives that hold records from this time period, including Library and Archives Canada, therefore also retain examples of real “red tape” in their collections.


Leah Sander is the Lead Archivist for Description in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

6 thoughts on “Red tape in the archives

  1. Thank you for sharing Leah. I had no idea of the origin of the “red tape” terminology, very informative.

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