The Archivio Apostolico Vaticano pursues it specific activity aimed at preserving and enhancing the deeds and documents related to the government of the Universal Church. It primarily serves the Roman Pontiff and the Holy See and secondly offers its services to scholars of all faiths from all nations.
The present name, "Vatican Apostolic Archives", dates back to when this institution was founded on the initiative of Paul V. From the mid-17th century, however, the title "Vatican Secret Archives" (sometimes also known as the "Vatican Apostolic Secret Archives”) was commonly used, stressing the particular nature of this collection of documents, which consists of the concentration in one place of several archives produced by as many curial offices. The Latin adjective secretum (from secernere = to separate, to distinguish, to reserve), in fact, described the archive founded by Paul V as separate from the others and reserved for the use of the pontiff and for officials appointed by him. This name constituted the official title of the institution until 22 October 2019, when Pope Francis, with his Apostolic Letter in the form of a motu proprio entitled “Historical experience”, restored the original name of "Vatican Apostolic Archives".
The documentary heritage housed in its vast storerooms spans about twelve centuries (8th to 20th centuries). It consists of over 600 archival fonds and is stored on over 85 linear kilometres of shelving, some of which is in the Bunker, a two-storey underground vault below the Cortile della Pigna of the Vatican Museums.
After Pope Leo XIII opened the doors of the Archivio Segreto Vaticano to scholars back in 1881, it has become one of the most famous history research centres in the world.
In accordance with a practice established in 1924, the pope grants free access to the documents «grouped into pontificates» currently running up to the end of the papacy of Pope Pius XI (February 1939). Nevertheless, Paul VI departed from this practice and granted scholars access to the Archives of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) after the Council came to a close in 1965; Pope John Paul II granted access to the fond Ufficio Informazioni Vaticano, Prigionieri di Guerra (Prisoners of War) (1939-1947); lastly, the fonds Commissione Centrale per l’Arte Sacra in Italia (1924-1989) and Censimento degli Archivi Ecclesiastici d’Italia (1942) have been made accessible to the scholars.