Archives Tutorial

This Archives Tutorial is meant to help new archival users understand what archives are, how they work, and how to navigate them as a researcher.


Commonly, the term 'archives' has 3 definitions

  1. A collection of archival material: unique, unpublished, primary sources such as letters, journals, photographs, posters, maps or diaries which are deemed to have lasting evidential or informational value (ex: the Dionne Brand archives).
  2. A building where collections of archival material are held (ex: I'm going to the Archives")
  3. The organizational body responsible for the acquisition, preservation, and provision of access to archival material (ex: The Trent University Archives).

Archives are many things to many people, including

  • A research centre: Because archives hold unique material, many different types of researchers will access and use archives, often visiting from far and wide. Typical archives researchers include scholars, students, authors, filmmakers, lawyers, museum curators, and family historians, as well as staff of the sponsoring body (ex: at Trent, university staff).
  • A house of memory: Archives are one way that we remember, as communities, cultures, nations, cities, or individuals. Because archives keep material indefinitely, they become a means of intergenerational knowledge exchange, or keeping memory beyond our lifespan. Archives allow us to look back at how things were, how things unfolded, and how we got here. 
  • A keeper of evidence: Archives hold key pieces of evidence that can be used to assist organizations (ex: to demonstrate ownership of property), individuals (ex: to provide evidence of a birth or marriage date), and nations and communities (ex: to demonstrate terms and conditions of treaties or land rights).
  • A classroom: Archives host talks, tours, workshops, and class visits, where people get hands-on, experiential learning opportunities to engage with archival research methodologies and their topic of study.
  • A community and gathering place for stories: Archives host gatherings, research teams, and familites who come to teh archives to remember together. Because archives hold primary sources, they also help us look back to uncover and tell new stories, which may have never been told. 

Records and primary sources

Archival material consists of what we call 'records.' Records are created by people, families, and organizations, as they go about their ordinarily lives and every day business.

Archives may consist of:

  • correspondence
  • journals
  • diaries
  • minutes
  • literary manuscripts
  • deeds or other land records
  • wills
  • marriage contracts
  • ledgers or day books
  • maps
  • sketches
  • broadsides
  • advertising flyers
  • architectural drawings
  • film, cassette, or video recordings
  • micro-format records
  • electronic media
  • photographs

Records are a natural by-product of human or organizational activity. Because of this, they act as evidence of actions and transactions, are are commonly called primary sources. Archives gather over time without being specifically written to inform or entertain. They keep a close link to who or what made them, and how they're sorted and described in an archive maintains this connection. Archives should be conceptualized as "records of" rather than "records about" a person or organization or association.

Archival materials are different from books

  • archival materials are unpublished, primary, unique
  • archival materials are organized by provenance (who created them) rather than by subject
  • archival materials are preserved in the order that they were created by the person, association or institution
  • archival materials do not circulate; they must be used in the archives Reading Room
  • archival materials are retrieved for the user from closed stacks
  • archival records may have restricted access, to protect privacy or comply with legislation

Archives have, perhaps, more in common with museums, oral traditions, natural and built environments, and works of art, than with library materials. Archival records such as day books, journals, and ledgers that may be used by business historians to construct a theory of nineteenth-century economic activity were created in the natural process of running a business; correspondence kept family members in touch with one another. Their secondary use by social historians was not considered when they were written. Because of this, they often require secondary research and context in order to interpret them.

Archival practice requires that the records of a person or agency be kept together, and, in addition, be kept in the same order as they were originally arranged. These are the rules of "provenance" and respect des fonds which govern the arrangement and description of archival material in every archival depository.

  • Each archival document or group of documents (known as a fonds) is assigned an accession number and shelved as it was created and subsequently forwarded to the archives whether it consists of one letter or a hundred boxes.
  • Material is not re-organized according to subject or topic. Maintaining the papers according to provenance and with absolute respect for the context of each and every component of the fonds ensures that researchers can make meaning from records, by preserving the context of the records' creation (i.e. who created them and why). Papers accumulated by a creator and kept intact tell us more about the creating body than would any sum of their parts if we broke it up into subject groupings or removed specific media from it without ensuring that appropriate intellectual linkages were in place.
  • Archival materials are less managed, and less manageable, than library materials. The maintenance of fonds holistically, and in the order in which they were created, dictates mechanisms of acquisition, description, arrangement and accessibility within the archival repository.

Archivists acquire papers, arrange and describe them, and ensure their permanent preservation. They then make these resources available to researchers by maintaining secure facilities, providing reference services, and engaging in instruction and outreach activities. In order to fulfill these responsibilities, they must:

Collect (Acquisitions)

Most archives have a written collections mandate, which outlines the geographic and/or subject areas for which the archives is responsible. Each archives is resposnbile for documenting a piece of our histories/cultures, and together as a field, we hope to document society fully. Within the parameters of their mandates, Archivists appraise and acquire materials that have historical/enduring value and are deemed appropriate to the repository. These are normally acquired through donation. Once acquired, the archivist has a responsibility to process, arrange, and describe materials in a timely manner.

The papers will be prepared for shelving and placed in acid-free file folders inside acid-free records storage boxes; folders will be labeled clearly with accession number, folder number and box number. Box labels will note the total number of boxes in the accession. Any restrictions to all or part of the fonds will be marked on the label.

Arrange and Re-house

After the donor arrangements have been made and acquisition has been legalized, the archivist will inspect the papers; identify fonds and any sous-fonds or series; clean and repair if necessary; encapsulate fragile items; supply order, if none exists, by putting the papers into chronological or alphabetical order, as appropriate; perform weeding as necessary. At all times, the archivists will be aware of "respect des fonds" and retain the original order of the papers wherever possible.


Archivists create finding aids, which describe their collections and ensure the archives can maintain physical and intellectual control over its holdings (i.e. it knows what it has, and where it is). Finding aids are increasingly found in database form on the web, but may also include guides), inventories, registers, file lists, shelf and box lists, calendars, software documentation (for electronic records) and databases. Each of the above may be hard-copy, electronic, online or all three.

Most archives in Canada describe their holdings in accordance with the Canadian descriptive standard, Rules for Archival Description (RAD), and many Archives share descriptions in "union lists" as Archives Canada and Archeion.

Make Accessible

Many diferent people access and use archives. Naturally Trent students and faculty use our resources as primary resource materials. Several theses have been written using our collections. Staff also access records such as meeting minutes and photographs to support university operations and celebrate anniversaries. More than half of our users come from outside the university. They are historians, scholars, biographers, film makers, playwrights, journalists, genealogists, and more.

Our reading room procedures typify our dual commitment to preservation and research. We provide professional consultation and guides to the materials in our keeping. We also specify procedures for persons consulting these materials. Researchers are asked to register when they come in to the archives. They discuss their research project with the archives staff and pertinent materials are retrieved and brought to them from the closed stacks. They may first consult the "Subject Guides to Holdings." There are 31 subject areas which offer a brief, one-paragraph description of each fonds as compared to the detailed Finding Aids which are complete with biographical or historical information, scope and contents, and file list. Researchers are required to use only pencils, not pens, for note-taking; cotton gloves must be worn when handling photographs and other fragile textual material; any photocopying will be done by archives staff and only if the original document is in good condition. Archival documents are often fragile and they are always unique. Replacement of lost or damaged items is not possible.

The issue of preservation is a basic concern to archivists. An overview may indicate some of the more obvious points. Less obvious are the methods by which archivists (with the blessing of copyright law) are allowed to transfer documents from one medium to another in the interests of relieving pressure on the original. Most common are the photo-reproduction of fragile texts for research usage, the transcriptions which often accompany scanned documents in Web exhibits, and of course transcriptions of oral interview tapes. It is increasingly the desire of researchers to expect digitized records to be available for easy access, ready transport, and distance researching. The archivist must never forget that machine-readable media are good for access, but bad for preservation. Good quality paper has lasted for 2500 years; microfilm will last for up to 1000 years. Reel-to-reel tapes will last 100 years. Even audio cassettes will last for decades and still have recoverable tracks on them. But floppy disks? CDs? DVDs? In the interests of preservation, microfilming is still the best option for archives. Though an expensive procedure, microfilm can be retrospectively digitized and one will have the best of both worlds.


Any repository accepting responsibility for archival materials also has a responsibility to make those materials available for research in a timely manner. No purpose is served by expending scarce university resources to maintain a dead storage facility. But, the preservation and accessibility aspects of archives are a dichotomy requiring a balancing act. Preserving materials only makes sense if those materials are used, and yet, permanent preservation is affected by use so care is needed when making records available. The relationship between archivist and donor or records creator is an enduring one. We have a responsibility to ensure the preservation of documents into perpetuity and have contracted to do so in our acceptance of papers. Hence, archives impose certain regulations in the interests of permanent preservation of their holdings.

These include:

  • Archival materials will be shelved in closed stacks;
  • Attention must be paid to archival standards of temperature and humidity;
  • Care must be taken to avoid natural light or unfiltered incandescent or fluorescent lights in the reading room;
  • Materials will be shelved in acid free envelopes within acid free records storage boxes, out of light and dust;
  • Photographs and negatives should be stored in inert photographic sleeves;
  • Paper is damaged by heat, light, dust, moisture, acidity, insects, rodents, paper clips, staples and the oil on people's hands - all must be scrupulously avoided;
  • Researchers must be asked to register when they arrive in the reading room;
  • No food or drinks are to be brought in to the reading room;
  • Coats and backpacks are to be left in an appropriate area away from research tables;
  • Users should bring pencils with them for note-taking - they may not use pens or markers;
  • Users should be careful not to fold the papers they're using and to refold them along the original fold lines;
  • Users must be careful not to have the sheet of paper they're writing on positioned on top of a document;
  • White cotton gloves may be provided for patrons handling photographs;
  • Only records in good condition will be photocopied by archives staff; we will not photocopy items which would be damaged by opening out flat or that are too large to fit fully supported on the machine;
  • We ask all researchers to be scrupulous about refiling papers in the correct folder and in the correct order in the correct box. Misfiled items will likely be lost for years in a repository containing upwards of 3 million pieces of paper.

There are great preservation and conservation resources available at the Canadian Conservation Institute and Conservation OnLine.

Managing archival resources is a balancing act. The Archivist is a point of intersection between the records creator and the records user, and it is that mediation between the preservation function, and the research function which demands our attention. Responsibility to the donor and ethical responsibility to the permanent maintenance and preservation of heritage materials implies security from human and environmental hazards. Whereas, commitment to research, and, one hopes, contribution to an accurate historical record, demands adequate accessibility for researchers. Tensions between these two must be examined and adjusted within the confines of staff and other available resources.

A list of definitions used in the archival profession:

Accession: The acquisition of archival materials whether through donation, purchase or scheduled transfer from a department.

Accessioning: The procedures followed by an archive to bring acquired archival materials under intellectual and legal control.

Appraisal: The process of assessing the monetary value of archival materials. Aspects to be considered are the physical condition; its “fit” within the mandate and existing holdings of the archive; evaluation of both evidentiary and informational content.

Acquisition: See accession. Acquiring archival materials must be a disciplined and deliberative process. the mandate of the acquiring institution must be strictly adhered to. All processes must be documented (including records of materials not acquired and the reasons for all decisions.

Archival Records: All recorded information, regardless of media or characteristics, made or received and maintained by an organization or institution or individual. Archival documents are primary, unpublished and two-dimensional. They were created in the course of conducting a business, running an association, managing a corporate body or an individual’s life. They were not purposefully created to be used for research purposes. They exhibit evidential and/or informational value. These might take the form of textual records, such as:

  •  correspondence (letters), diaries, minutes, proceedings, commonplace books, printed materials (brochures, flyers, etc.), financial documents (ledgers, daybooks, statements), literary productions (manuscripts, reports, etc.), legal documents (deeds, wills), scrapbooks and scrapbook material, maps, graphs, charts and lists (Fire insurance plans).

Or, they might take the form of non-textual records such as:

  •  microforms, (films or fiches), cassette tapes (audio or video) or photographic records.

Archives: This term can refer to archival records or the institution responsible for the care and control of archival records or the repository in which archival records are stored. The term is used in both the singular and plural form.

“Archives Canada”: A multi-year project of the Canadian Council of Archives to link provincial networks of archival repositories. For example, the Ontario component of the network is called "Archeion" and includes RAD (Rules for Archival Description)-compliant records from all participating repositories in a province-wide database marked up using EAD (Encoded Archival Description) which is in turn linked (invisibly) to “Archives Canada”.

Collection: An artificial accumulation of documents brought together on the basis of a common characteristic, such as subject, medium, name of collector, etc.

Deaccessioning: The process of removing archival materials from the holdings. A practice to be avoided and usually unnecessary if the archive’s written mandate has been adhered to. The euphemistic term is “reappraisal.” Deaccessioning always involves legal, ethical and practical concerns.

Deed of Gift - Donor Agreement: A signed and dated contact between an archive and a donor of archival material. Form sets out the terms of the donation and itemizes any restrictions on use, copying and whether or not copyright and publishing rights are being transferred along with ownership of the physical material.

Diplomatics: The study of documents (usually handwritten) to ascertain their provenance and thus authenticity. The paleographer looks at the paper, ink, writing style, subject matter and appearance to establish date and validity. Archival diplomatics looks at the physical, external characteristics of the document. An extension of this idea is towards historical diplomatics which includes looking at the context, author and intellectual purpose of the documents.

Evidential Value: The value of papers and records as documentation of the creating body (person, institution, association or corporation).

File or item: The lowest level of description, including files of documents or individual documents that might come in a variety of forms and media. These might include: a letter(s), a film, a photograph, a map, a journal, an architectural plan. Basically, it implies the contents of one file folder.

Finding aids: Descriptive tools which contain information about archival records and facilitate research into the records. Finding aids must conform to the standards of description specified by Rules of Archival Description (RAD). These tools may be called guides, inventories, indexes, file or, in the case of photographs, item listings which contain information that establishes administrative, physical, or intellectual control over the holdings of an archives, and make it possible to retrieve particular records or information from these archives.

Fonds: The whole of the records, regardless of form or medium, automatically and organically created and/or accumulated and used by a particular individual, family, or corporate body in the course of that creator’s activities and functions. The word is always plural.

Holdings: A general term which refers to the entire inventory of archival records, of any medium, in the custody of the archival institution.

Informational Value: The value of records or manuscripts for the information that they contain on individuals, subjects, businesses, and so forth, not just evidence of the creating body itself.

Manuscripts: Any documents in any form (hand-written, typed, word processed). Includes group of personal papers with organic unity or purposefully accumulated and artificially collected papers and documents.

Original Order: The principle whereby papers and documents are kept in the order that the archives received them from the creating body or person. The term is related to “provenance” and “respect des fonds.”

Provenance: The continuous history of the persons, families, or corporate bodies that created and/or accumulated and used the records in question. Provenance includes all information on the successive transfers of ownership and custody of personal papers, documents and records. It is akin to the “genealogy” of ownership of a group of documents or records. In archival terms, the word is often attenuated to a simpler definition. It is used to mean the originator of a record (person, institution, agency). See “original order” and “respect des fonds”.

Record: Recorded information in any form, created or received by a person, family, corporate or government body in the course of the creator's activities or functions. Often used (and always in the United States) to mean exclusively official documents created by governments, organizations, institutions or other corporate bodies, as compared with “historical manuscripts” which often (and always in the United States) means private papers: personal, family or association documents.

Respect des fonds: The principle which dictates that the records of a person, family or corporate body must be kept together in their original order, if it exists and has been maintained. Records cannot be mixed with the records of any other creating body or person.

Rules for Archival Description (RAD): A system for creating archival descriptions or "finding aids" that identify and describe records. It is based on the principle of provenance where each archival document exists as part of a group (fonds) and is linked to all other records in that group. To qualify for grants from the Canadian Council of Archives, repositories must create RAD-compliant finding aids. RAD is the result of attempts to create standardization across repositories in order to transmit and access records electronically. A RAD description must, at a minimum, give information about the scope and contents of a fonds, dates of creation, title, physical description, administrative history or biographical sketch, name of repository where material is housed. The Trent RAD database structure has ca. 30 fields.

Series: A group of records which is organized as a unit and documents a specific activity or function. Within a fonds, there may be several distinguishable series of records.

Sous-Fonds: Similar to a series. The sous-fonds is a discrete group of records clustered under the umbrella of a fonds. The papers of various individual family members, for example, would constitute sous-fonds within the larger fonds.

Textual Records: Paper-based manuscripts, as compared to electronic records, graphics materials, maps, sound and moving image recordings or photographs.

“Total Archives”: The Canadian system of archives whereby all records, in whatever medium, both official government records and private manuscripts are considered to be “archives” and handled similarly.

Transcription: A copy or reproduction: hand-written, word processed or typescript of an original document. A verbatim printed or typed copy of an oral presentation such as an oral interview.

Vital Statistics Records: Birth, marriage, baptism or death records gathered officially or unofficially (as in a family Bible).

Weeding and selection: The removal of non-archival material from file units during the processing of records. The documents removed may be returned to the donor, donated to another archival institution, or destroyed. Weeding should be limited only to those extraneous materials that are irrelevant to the significance of the series or the meaning of the remaining documents. Non-archival material usually consists of duplicates or items such as cheque stubs, financial records when there are monthly or annual summations, unidentified photographs which contribute neither evidence nor information to the fonds.

Guides to Archival Research

Information for Archivists and Heritage Workers

Archives Associations

Pertinent Legislation

See also our Directory of Local and Digital Archives/History Resources.